Did you ever wonder what it's like to work in space? Sunita Williams did, too. She grew up in the age of "The Jetsons," a futuristic cartoon about a family living in outer space. And in 1969, when she was 4 years old, she watched on TV as the first men to land on the moon took their initial steps on the dusty landscape.
Even at such a young age, she was awed. She thought she'd love to travel in space one day, but it was a long time before she seriously considered becoming an astronaut. The concept seemed a little too "out of this world." Since Ms. Williams loves animals, she thought she might become a veterinarian.
When she got older, however, she served in the US Navy, where she learned to fly helicopters. She knew that military pilots could become astronauts. But she also knew that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) liked pilot applicants to have experience flying jet aircraft, rather than propeller-powered craft such as helicopters.
Then, while Ms. Williams was in test-pilot school, her class took a trip to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston. During the visit, she heard astronaut John Young speak about his space missions. One thing he said stuck out: He had to fly helicopters in preparation for landing the lunar module on the moon.
Suddenly, becoming an astronaut seemed within her reach. Ms. Williams started thinking that maybe NASA needed good helicopter pilots after all. So she applied, and in 1998, she was chosen to be an astronaut candidate.
As part of her training, she learned to fly a T-38 supersonic jet aircraft. She also learned water and wilderness survival skills. She learned some Russian, too. Then she worked in Moscow with the Russian Space Agency on Russia's contribution to the International Space Station (ISS). She even spent nine days living on the ocean floor as a crew member of NEEMO 2, the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, because life underwater is a lot like life in space on the ISS.
Finally, in 2006, Ms. Williams was ready to launch into space. She left Earth aboard the space shuttle Discovery on Dec. 9.
Through her space travel, she has reached important milestones – and even set some records: Ms. Williams's father is from India, so when she blasted off into space, she became the second woman of Indian heritage to do so. (Kalpana Chawla was the first; she flew to space on the shuttle Columbia in 2003.)
Ms. Williams completed four spacewalks outside the ISS, more than any woman before her. She has also spent more total time on spacewalks than any other female astronaut (29 hours, 17 minutes). And when she returned to Earth on June 22 this year, she had spent 195 days in space, another record for women.
So just what is it like to be up in space? Well, you may know there's almost no gravity there, so people – and objects – on space missions are nearly weightless. This affects even the most basic daily tasks, Ms. Williams explained on a recent visit to Boston.
In space, "you have to eat serially," she said, meaning that you've got to eat each part of a meal separately. You can't mix foods together as you might at Thanksgiving. Turkey spread with cranberry sauce would just float apart.
This was a real disappointment for Ms. Williams because she likes eating foods together, especially wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and ginger.
She was once sent a tube of wasabi flavored with ginger in a care package on a resupply mission. But the tube had been packaged under the pressure of Earth's atmosphere. So when Ms. Williams opened it in a virtually weightless environment, the contents shot out like a geyser all over her sweatshirt!
That was a problem because astronauts in space don't wash their clothes. They wear them for a week or so and then load them onto an unmanned Progress cargo ship, which brings supplies to the ISS and takes away waste. Ms. Williams did her best to wipe the wasabi off her shirt, but some of it stuck around.
Ms. Williams loves athletic activity, so she spent a lot of time in space working out. It's important for astronauts to keep in shape, she said. Inside the space station are three exercise machines, including a treadmill.
Using the treadmill, she even ran the Boston Marathon in space! When most of her fellow crew members were sleeping, she started the 26.2-mile race at the same time as runners on the ground. After 4 hours, 23 minutes, 10 seconds – and at least two ISS orbits around the planet – she radioed NASA Mission Control to say she'd completed her run.
You might be wondering, "How do you run if you're weightless?" Well, you have to strap yourself to the treadmill, explains Ms. Williams. And you can add extra resistance straps so it feels more like you're running under a real gravitational pull.
She really enjoyed participating in the marathon from so far away. But even more exciting were the spacewalks Ms. Williams got to go on. It was awe-inspiring to be working on the ISS while hovering over our big blue planet, she said.
And since she was on the space station for more than six months, she got to watch (mostly out the windows) as the whole Northern Hemisphere changed from a snowy-white winter to a lush, green spring and summer.
Ms. Williams also learned that, from space, the dark color of the rain forests' thick vegetation is hard to distinguish from the dark color of the ocean. Unfortunately, it's not hard to tell where enormous swaths of the forests have been clear-cut for timber or to make room for farming.
Another thing that impressed Ms. Williams on her voyage was the need to protect the atmosphere. Space shuttles have to travel only about 220 miles upward before they reach the ISS. And the total atmosphere is about 372 miles thick (just shy of the distance between Los Angeles and Sacramento, Calif.).
In the grand scheme of things, then, the combination of gasses that envelope the Earth is quite thin. So it's important to keep the atmosphere in good shape, Ms. Williams says, because everyone relies on it to keep the planet from getting too hot or too cold.