In May 1987, Sunita Williams received her commission as an Ensign in the US Navy from the United States Naval Academy. She did a temporary assignment of six months at the Naval Coastal System Command, and thereafter, she was designated as a Basic Diving Officer, reporting to Naval Aviation Training Command.
In 1989, she was designated as a Naval Aviator, and reported to Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 3 for initial H-46 Sea Knight, training. After the completion of the training, she was assigned to Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 8 in Norfolk, Virginia. In support of Desert Shield and Operation Provide Comfort, she made overseas deployments to the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean, and the Red Sea.
In 1992, she became the Officer-in-Charge of an H-46 detachment, and went to Miami, Florida, for Hurricane Andrew Relief Operations onboard USS Sylvania.
She did a course at the United States Naval Test Pilot School in January 1993. On completion in December 1993, she became the Project Officer assigned to the Rotary Wing Aircraft Test Directorate as an H-46, and V-22 Chase Pilot in the T-2.
Next, she was assigned as the squadron Safety Officer, and flew test flights in the SH-60B/F, UH-1, AH‑1W, SH-2, VH-3, H-46, CH-53 and the H-57. In December 1995, she became an Instructor in the Rotary Wing Department of the Naval Test Pilot School, and also held the school’s Safety Officer post, and flew the UH-60, OH-6 and the OH-58. Following this, she became the Aircraft Handler and the Assistant Air Boss, assigned to the USS Saipan (LHA-2), Norfolk, Virginia.
NASA selected her for astronaut training in June 1998. By then she had logged more than 3000 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft. She started Astronaut Candidate Training in August 1998, where she learnt ISS systems, water and wilderness survival techniques, and received physiological training, and T-38 flight training.
After the training, she was sent to Moscow to work at the Russian Space Agency on the Russian space station, and with the first Expedition Crew. She also worked in the Robotics branch of the Robotic Arm, and as follow-on Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator.
When she was a NEEMO2 crew member, she lived underwater in the Aquarius habitat for nine days. After her first NASA flight, she served as Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office, and supported a mission as Flight Engineer for Expedition 32 and International Space Station Commander for Expedition 33.
On December 9, 2006, she was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) with STS-116, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, when she joined the Expedition 14 crew. As an Expedition 14 crew member, she served as an Flight Engineer. On June 22, 2007, she returned to Earth with STS-117 crew and landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
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On July 15, 2012, she was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome as part of Expedition 32/33. Docked with the ISS, her Russian spacecraft Soyuz TMA-05M was on a four-month stay at the orbiting outpost. She served as commander of the ISS onboard Expedition 33.
On September 17, 2012, she became the commander of the ISS, the second woman to achieve the feat. Throughout these four months, she conducted research and exploration aboard the orbiting laboratory. She displayed the Indian flag on ISS on the occasion of the Independence Day of India in 2012.On November 19, 2012, she landed in Kazakhstan.
In July 2015, NASA selected her as one of the first astronauts for US Commercial spaceflights. Thereafter, along with other chosen astronauts, she started working with Boeing and SpaceX to train in their commercial crew vehicles.
As of October 2017, she had been working closely with Boeing and SpaceX, working toward flight tests. By the end of 2017, Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon will be ready for flight tests that allow the astronauts to travel to ISS, lifting off from Florida's Space Coast.
Awards & Achievements
Sunita Williams holds the record for total cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut with 50 hours and 40 minutes. She is also placed at No. 8 on the list of most experienced spacewalkers. While onboard ISS, she created a world record amongst females with four spacewalks totaling 29 hours and 17 minutes.
On April 16, 2007, she made another world record, by becoming the first person to run a marathon in space. She finished the 2007 Boston Marathon in four hours and 24 minutes.
She has been awarded the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Vishwa Pratibha Award by the World Gujarati Society.
In 2008, she received the Padma Bhushan from India, and in 2011, she received the Medal for Merit in Space Exploration from the Government of Russia.
In September 2012, she became the first person to complete a triathlon in space, as a part of California’s Nautica Malibu Triathlon. She used the ISS’ treadmill and stationary bike, and as a substitute for swimming, a part of the race, she used the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) for weightlifting and resistance exercises that is taken as swimming in microgravity. After “swimming” for half a mile, biking 18 miles, and running 4 miles, she finished in 1 hour, 48 minutes, and 33 seconds.
The numerous medals she has earned include Navy Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, and NASA Spaceflight Medal.
Sunita married Michael J. Williams, a Federal police officer in Oregon. They have no children. However, in 2012, she had expressed a desire to adopt a girl from Gujarat, India.
She is featured in a documentary film titled ‘The Mars Generation’, which is about a new generation of teenagers who are preparing to go to Mars.
She is a member of Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
She has a pet Jack Russell Terrier called Gorby, who was featured with her on the ‘Dog Whisperer’ television show on the National Geographic Channel.