Dr. Sunita Williams – NASA Astronaut

Dr. Sunita Williams

“I think about leaving my home for another country — that seems more daring than the things I’ve done”. – Dr. Sunita Williams responding to questions on how she deals with the dangers of being an astronaut and comparing it to her parents experiences living as immigrants in America.



Dr. Sunita Williams in her Astronaut uniform. Source: [2]

Name: Dr. Sunita Lyn Williams (neé Pandya)

Life: 19/09/65 – Present (53 years)

Born: Euclid, Ohio, United States


BSc Physical Science, U.S. Naval Academy (1987)

MSci Engineering Management, Florida Institute of Technology (1995)

Honorary Doctorate, Gujarat Technological University (2013)

Occupation: NASA Astronaut, United States Navy Officer, Pilot, Engineer


Who is Dr. Sunita Williams?

Dr. Sunita Williams is a NASA Astronaut and United States Navy officer of Indian and Slovenian descent. She has been assigned to the International Space Station (ISS) on two separate occasions, serving as a flight engineer and commander. Currently she is preparing for a third expedition where she will be part of a crew bringing supplies to the ISS aboard the Boeing CST-100 Starliner[1][2][3][7][8]


Dr. Williams was born Sunita Lyn Pandya in Euclid, Ohio to two immigrant parents Deepak and Ursuline Pandya. Her father was a neuroscientist from the Gujarat region in India and her mother was an X – Ray technician, moving to the States from Leše Slovenia when she was 11. Williams grew up as the youngest of three siblings, with her brother (Jay Thomas) being 4 years older and her sister (Dina Anna) being 3 years older. [1][4]

Williams has stated that when she was young she initially wanted to be a veterinarian, inspired by a love of animals and nature as well as having sketches of the brain all around her childhood home due to both of her parents being in the medical field. She attended Needham High School in the state of Massachusetts, graduating in ‘83 and following a recommendation from her brother joined the US Naval Academy, wanting to continue her active lifestyle. [1][4]

Naval Career

She graduated in 1987 with a BSc in Physical Science and following this was enlisted as an Ensign in the United States Naval Academy. She reported for aviator training and by July 1989 she began combat helicopter training. As a result of this she flew in helicopter support squadrons during the Persian Gulf War and helped establish no fly zones over Kurdish areas of Iraq, as well as being the Officer-in-Charge of a military unit aboard the USS Sylvania during a relief mission for Hurricane Andrew (1992), based in Miami Florida. [1][2][3][4]

By 1993 she had become a test pilot as well as a test pilot instructor and by 1995 she completed her Masters in Engineering Management from the Florida Institute of technology.  [1][2][3][4]

Dr. Williams was assigned to the USS Saipan in Norfolk, Virginia as the Aircraft Handler and Assistant Air Boss when she was selected by the NASA Astronaut Program. She was successful only on her second application after the completion of her Masters degree and to date she has logged over 3000 flight hours on over 30 different aircraft. [1][2][3][4]

A list of know aircraft Dr. Sunita Williams has Piloted


Astronaut Career


Reporting for training at the Johnson Space Centre in August 1998 Williams began orientation, which included numerous scientific briefings, technical briefings and tours. After this she completed intensive tutorials on how the shuttle and ISS systems worked as well as completing physiological training and further flight training on a new to her aircraft, the T-38 Talon. [1][2][3][4]

Additional training at elevation and on wilderness survival techniques took place and following this Williams went to Moscow to train with the Russian Space Agency in robotics and other ISS operational technologies. [2][3]

By 2002 Williams was part of the second ever crew to take part in the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), a NASA analogue mission that runs to this day, where Astronauts are prepped for space flight by spending up to three weeks in the world’s only undersea research centre. She spent a total of 9 days submerged, from 13th – 20th May. [2][4]

Spaceflight Experience

Expeditions 14/15

Sunita Williams launched on her first space flight on December 9th 2006 with the crew of the STS-116 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Due to her extensive experience as a successful pilot she served as a flight engineer and joined the crew of the 14th Expedition, replacing German Astronaut Thomas Arthur Reiter. Astronauts are allowed to bring personal items along with them on their missions and among hers was a copy of the Bhagavad Gita which is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana, a small idol of the Hindu deity Ganesha – the God of Good Fortune, and some samosas.[1][2][3]

During her first mission on the International Space Station, Williams spent most of her time helping build the space station, which was not 100% complete. She remarks in an interview how she and her fellow astronauts even had to help fix the toilets when they malfunctioned, as they obviously could not call for a plumber to help, and that not all of the work of an astronaut is glamorous. Her first mission totaled 195 days, during which she completed four spacewalks, (three of which were within nine days of each other), totalling over 29 hours and 17 minutes. As a result of this she held the world record for the most time a woman has spent outside of the space station and the most time a female astronaut has spent in space, until these were broken by other astronauts in 2015. [1][2][3][4][5]

Additionally, she participated in the Boston Marathon, running 42.2 km (or 26.2 miles) via the ISS’ treadmill and following this Williams concluded her tour of duty as a member of the Expedition 15 crew, returning to Earth along with the crew of the STS-117 mission, landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on 22nd June 2007 at 3:49 pm EST (7:49 pm GMT). [1][2][3][4]

Expeditions 32 and 33

Williams second expedition to the ISS lasted from 14th July to 18th November 2012. She launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard the Soyuz TMA-05M, and initially served as a flight engineer. On the 17th September 2012 she became the second woman to become commander of the International Space Station, succeeding Gennady Padalka. She also became the first person to do a triathlon in space, (finishing in 48 minutes and 33 seconds), and spent the four months she was aboard the station conducting research experiments via the orbiting laboratory. [1][2][3][4]

Williams performed three spacewalks to replace some components on the outside of the station and with an additional 50 hours and 40 minutes achieved on a space walk she retained her world record (which again has been surpassed as of 2015). At this point she has spent a total of 322 days in space, making her second (after astronaut Peggy Whitson). She returned to earth with fellow astronauts Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide on November 19th 2012, touching down in the town of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan. [2][3]

Commercial Crew Program

In July 2015 Williams was one of the first of nine astronauts selected to take part in the US Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The goal of the CCP is to develop safe, reliable and cost effective access between the ISS and low Earth orbit, laying the foundation for companies to eventually have commercial access to space. So far two spacecrafts, Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon, have been funded by the US government and the program is run by NASA. Once it meets NASA’s safety regulations, standards and requirements it will begin running missions. As an experienced astronaut, Sunita Williams is invaluable to the program, and along with her colleagues has been training for her first mission due to launch in 2019. She will be piloting the CST-100. [1][3][6][7][8]

📺Click here for a video on the Commercial Crew Program Astronauts preparing for their spaceflights

Suni VR
Image of Dr. Sunita Williams practising a space walk via a virtual reality headset at the Johnson space centre in Houston. Source: https://blogs.nasa.gov/commercialcrew/

A list of Honours + Awards Bestowed on Sunita Williams

As of 2013 Dr. Sunita Williams was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Gujarat Technological University due to her outstanding career as an astronaut, an award that she thoroughly deserved.



References are categorised by the following types:

🗒️ = Written 

🎧 = Audio

💻 = Video

[1]🗒️ – Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunita_Williams

[2]🗒️ – Nasa Astronaut Biography – https://www.nasa.gov/astronauts/biographies/sunita-l-williams/biography

[3]🗒️ – Encyclopedia Britannica Biography – https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sunita-Williams

[4]🗒️ – Space.com Biography – https://www.space.com/17221-sunita-williams-astronaut-biography.html  

[5]🗒️ – Space.com Article – https://www.space.com/41982-astronaut-sunita-williams-talks-space-nyc-intrepid.html

[6]🗒️ – Times of India Article – https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/science/sunita-williams-8-others-to-fly-on-boeing-spacex-spacecraft-nasa/articleshow/65263565.cms

[7]🗒️ – Official NASA Commercial Crew Program Blog – https://www.nasa.gov/exploration/commercial/crew/index.html

[8]🗒️ – Official NASA Commercial Crew Program Overview – https://www.nasa.gov/content/commercial-crew-program-the-essentials/#.U_ung_ldUn3

Authors Note: Dr. Sunita Williams is a brilliant athlete, scientist and astronaut. She has had an outstanding and well deserved career and shows no sign of stopping as she is working towards yet another flight to the ISS, a feat that takes great physical and mental strength. As a clearly avid pilot, she is a member of the society of experimental test pilots and continues to be an excellent example of a woman of colour in STEM. The official NASA Commercial Crew program blog, reference #8, is an excellent resource to keep up with her work and in addition to that you can follow her on twitter @Astro_Suni.

For more information on POC scientists please visit our resources page or read through the rest of our blog. We are constantly updating both.

Written by Karel Green. For more information see the about page or follow her on twitter @thisismeonline.

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