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USNA Notable Graduate: Sunita L. Williams

Jul 15, 2022 10:00:00 AM

She holds the spacewalking record for women: seven spacewalks that clocked in at 50 hours and 40 minutes. She has logged a total of 322 days in space across two missions, ranking her sixth on the all-time U.S. endurance list—and second for women. Sunita L. Williams has blazed starry trails in space and earned every one of her minutes in the sun (even if they were on the moon).

Eyes on the Skies

Born on September 19, 1965 in Euclid, Ohio to Indian-American neuroanatomist Deepak Pandya and Sloven-American Bonnie Pandya, Sunita Lyn “Suni” Williams was the youngest of three children, including brother Jay Thomas and sister Dina Anna. In 1983, Williams graduated from her adopted hometown of Needham High School in Needham, Massachusetts and headed to the Naval Academy. There, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in physical science in 1987 and was commissioned as an ensign. 

Williams completed a six-month temporary assignment with the Naval Coastal System Command and became a Basic Diving Officer. Then it was off to the Naval Air Training Command in Corpus Christi, Texas, where she earned her wings as a Naval Aviator in July 1989, with initial H-46 Sea Knight training in Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 3 (HC-3). She put her training to work as she joined Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 8 (HC-8) in Norfolk, Virginia and deployed to the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf as an instrumental part of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Provide Comfort. 

Taking on a Test Pilot Career

Back in Miami, Florida after these deployments, Williams was tasked with serving as the Officer-in-Charge of an H-46 detachment. Through this assignment, she again provided humanitarian support by aiding Hurricane Andrew relief operations aboard USS Sylvania in September 1992. By December 1993, she had graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and was assigned to the Rotary Wing Aircraft Test Directorate as an H-46 Project Officer and V-22 chase pilot in the T-2. As if this weren’t enough to manage, during this time she also attended Florida Institute of Technology—and secured her Master of Science degree in Engineering Management in 1995. 

While completing her studies, Williams became 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, then returned in December 1995 to the Naval Test Pilot School as an instructor in the Rotary Wing Department and also as the school's Safety Officer. There she flew the UH-60, OH-6 and the OH-58. She then became the Aircraft Handler and Assistant Air Boss aboard the USS Saipan. It was here in June 1998 that she was notified by NASA that she had qualified for their prestigious astronaut program. By August, Williams was reporting to the Johnson Space Center as an Astronaut Candidate.

Sharing Her Heritage in Space

She had flown so many different types of aircraft and completed so many flights. It was time to expand her horizons. As a trained astronaut, Williams joined STS-116 on the Space Shuttle Discovery on December 9, 2006 to travel to the International Space Station (ISS), where she met up with the Expedition 14 (later 15) crew. After her first extravehicular ride, she had the chance to take three spacewalks with Michael López-Alegría on January 31, February 4 and February 9, 2007. On the last one, she stayed outside of the ISS for six hours, forty minutes, breaking the record formerly held by Kathryn C. Thornton for most spacewalks by a woman. This was superseded on December 18, 2007, when Peggy Whitson logged 32 hours, 36 minutes.

On her trip, Williams made the most of her journey in space, bringing important representations of her Indian heritage. She kept the Bhagavad Gita, a small figurine of the Hindu deity Ganesha and some tasty samosas on board. She also caught the world’s attention as she brought some other Earthly adventures with her. While in space on April 16, 2007, Williams became the first person to run the Boston Marathon from the ISS. She ran on a treadmill and completed the run in four hours and 24 minutes, while the crew cheered for her and gave her oranges. The following year, she got to run it on Earth. Williams also had her hair cut and donated it to Locks of Love while at the ISS. She finally returned home with the STS-117 crew as a mission specialist on Atlantis to Edwards Air Force Base, California on June 22, 2007. 

Taking the Triathlon to the ISS

Five years later, she returned to space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with Expedition 32 as flight engineer on the Soyuz TMA-05M, which docked with the ISS for four months starting on July 17, 2012. On September 17th, Williams became the second female commander of the ISS, with Expedition 33. Then she hit another first! In September 2012, Williams participated in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon—from space. She used the treadmill and stationary bike, as well as the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) for weightlifting and resistance exercises that mirrored swimming in microgravity. Her time was one hour, 48 minutes and 33 seconds for “swimming" half a mile, biking 18 miles and running 4 miles. Again, she captured the world’s attention. On November 18, 2012, she headed back to Earth after 127 days in space, touching down in Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, 35 km from the proposed landing site after a delay. Helicopters retrieved Williams and astronaut flight engineers Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide safely.

Not long after, NASA selected Williams in July 2015 as one of the first astronauts for the next generation of space exploration—U.S. commercial space flights. She is helping SpaceX and Boeing train in their commercial crew vehicles. All told, Williams has logged over 3,000 flight hours in more than 30 aircraft types.


Blazing Starry Trails

As for spacewalks, she’s back on top again. As of March 2016, Williams racked up seven spacewalks totalling 50 hours and 40 minutes. While she’s first for women, she’s just seventh on the full roster of experienced spacewalkers.

Those aren’t her only accolades. Williams has collected a number of other notable achievements, including these medals:

  • Navy Commendation Medal (2)
  • Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal
  • Humanitarian Service Medal
  • National Defense Service Medal
  • NASA Spaceflight Medal
  • Medal “For Merit in Space Exploration,” Government of Russia (2011)
  • Padma Bhushan, Government of India (2008)
  • Honorary Doctorate, Gujarat Technological University (2013)
  • Golden Order for Merits, Government of Slovenia (2013)

Williams is part of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Society of Flight Test Engineers and the American Helicopter Association as well. She is married to Michael J. Williams, who serves as a federal police officer in Oregon and is a fellow helicopter pilot as well. 

The Naval Academy Business Services Division (NABSD) is proud to support midshipmen like Williams who have broken barriers in space and in life. We celebrate her tremendous achievements and know they will inspire more women—and more women of diverse ancestry—to follow this incredible path. Our mission is to support the Brigade of Midshipmen now and in the future. Every bit we earn goes back to them. Every time you visit, shop, or dine on the Yard (or shop with us at Navyonline), you’re supporting the midshipmen too. Together we can help others follow these incredible paths and blaze new, exciting trails.

Shop to Support the Midshipmen!

Bill the Goat
Written by Bill the Goat

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