Sunita Williams, a US citizen of Indian and Slovenian origin, has been in the news for being among the four US astronauts selected to operate commercial shuttles from the US to the International Space Station (ISS).
This exciting announcement came a week ago as a follow-up to NASA’s decision last year to award contracts to aircraft companies Boeing and SpaceX, to build commercial shuttles to space. Especially exciting because Williams is the only non-white, non-male member of this new four-member crew. If there’s a glass ceiling in space, it’s definitely cracking.
So who’s the woman behind the space helmet?
I’ve condensed a summary of her career below. I’d like you to tell me how it feels to read it:
- Born in the US
- One grandmother from Mehsana, Gujarat
- Bachelor’s in Physics, Masters in Engineering Management
- Basic Diving Officer, then Naval Aviator in the US Navy
- Helicopter combat support overseas
- Hurricane Andrew relief operations for the US Navy
- Test Pilot for the US Navy
- Aircraft Handler and the Assistant Air Boss on the USS Saipan
- 3,000 flight hours, 30 aircraft types
- Joined the NASA astronaut program
- Launched to the ISS
- She’s been outside the ISS (in a spacesuit) 7 times – a record number for a woman astronaut
- The total duration of these 7 spacewalks was 50 hours 40 min – again a record for a woman
- Ran the first marathon in space, inside the ISS
- Broke the record for longest single spaceflight by a woman on her way back to Earth
- Went back for an ISS ‘visit’ 5 years later
- Became the second woman commander of the ISS
- Did the first triathlon in space (how?*)
- Age: 50 this year
- Personal hobbies: running, swimming, biking, triathlons, windsurfing, snowboarding, bow hunting and knitting
- No, not knitting!
“So… how did that feel?”
I often wonder about downtime. I wonder what my life would be like if I didn’t spend my time thinking, obsessing, looking at a screen, spacing out, watching TV shows, Wikipedia-hopping, WhatsApping, playing Scrabble against my phone. If I sat up, stood up, went outdoors more often. If my hobbies weren’t “reading, reading, reading”. If I didn’t sleep 10 hours a day.
The answer is: even then I wouldn’t be Sunita Williams, so I can just go ahead and forget about it.
So how is being in space different for a woman? Apart from the social differences, I mean, like possible sexism.
Last year I read an article that told me the basics of what happens to a human body aboard something like the ISS, where the artificial gravity isn’t as powerful as Earth’s. To summarize:
- You have to constantly exercise, otherwise you lose muscle/bone mass and start fainting.
- Your spine length increases painfully in a microgravity environment.
- You’re exposed radiation that the Earth’s magnetic field protects us from, leading to poor eyesight.
- Your sinuses are always full of phlegm, because of the weaker gravity.
- Your sense of taste is weakened, making Tabasco sauce worth its weight in gold on the ISS.
- You get “space diabetes” – a condition that imitates diabetes.
- Lowered immunity, because bacteria apparently behave like they’re on steroids in space.
- When you’re back, you have to get used to Earth’s stronger gravity all over again.
- “Microgravity and privacy concerns can lead to infrequent and incomplete bladder emptying” – this pleasant little datum is from here.
And here’s how it’s different for women’s bodies. The Journal of Women’s Health says:
Women have a higher incidence of radiation-induced cancers, largely driven by lung, thyroid, breast, and ovarian cancers, and therefore reach maximal safe days in space earlier than men.
They also mention an exhaustive-sounding study on the effect of space travel on human sperm; but as far as women are concerned, they mention studies on female rats and say, “Comparable evaluations in women are lacking.”
This NASA infographic tells us the fundamental differences. Women’s bodies adapt to some things better, and men’s to other things.
But back to Sunita Williams. Her tweets from aboard the ISS are wonderful to read. Here’s someone who’s full of life, challenging her followers to keep up. She posts “geo quizzes”, i.e. a photo of a place on Earth taken from space – and we have to guess where it is. Being part-Guju, one of her “quizzes” was a breathtaking photo of the Gulf of Kuchh. I couldn’t see it right away, but I tilted my head and there it was!
Her blog, too, gives one such a good sense of being human on the ISS. Before her return from her 2012 ISS trip, she wrote a post called “Packing for Earth”, in which she talks about how unreal it feels to be on the brink of return.
(Speaking of tweets from space, have you heard of Scott Kelley? He’s one of two astronauts who are currently on a yearlong mission in space to aid research that will contribute to a project to colonize Mars in the 21st century. And he has a particular talent for tweeting beautiful photos. Must follow!)
Apart from the geo quizzes, Williams’ tweets talk about life aboard the ISS, not just the survival that the film Gravity showed us: we hear about food a lot, in a reassuringly life-affirming tone. And her friends and colleagues. Plus Cleopatra, a zebra spider aboard the ISS.
Also space toilets (which made me nostalgic for that episode of The Big Bang Theory where a zero-gravity toilet goes boom). I’ll end this groupie-essay with one of her tweets on toilets:
We believe you, Sunita. We fervently believe you when you say it’s complicated.
*For Williams’ triathlon, says Wikipedia, “She used the International Space Station’s own treadmill and stationary bike, and for the swimming portion of the race, she used the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) to do weightlifting and resistance exercises that approximate swimming in microgravity.”