Sunita Williams astronaut and U.S. Navy officer has logged more than 3,000 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft. A veteran spacewalker and member of the International Space Station with world records to her credit, Sunita Williams biography, achievements and character serves as a shining example of what young South Asian American women, and young people throughout the world, can accomplish if they set their sights on the stars.
Education and Early Career
Just a few years after her 1983 graduation from Needham High School in Needham, Massachusetts, Williams entered the U.S. Navy as an ensign in 1987 where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. Between then and her selection into NASA as an astronaut in 1998, she progressed through many stages and levels of training, experience and advancement:
- Spending six-months at the Naval Coastal System Command
- Receiving her Basic Diving Officer designation
- Working at Naval Aviation Training Command
- Earning designation as a Naval Aviator (July 1989)
- Training with with Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 3 to pilot the Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight transport helicopter
- Joining Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 8 in Norfolk, Virginia, making deployments overseas to the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Mediterranean to support of Operation Provide Comfort and Desert Shield
- Serving as the Officer-in-Charge of an H-46 detachment onboard USS Sylvania sent for Hurricane Andrew Relief Operations to Miami, Florida (September 1992)
- Studying at United States Naval Test Pilot School (NTPS) whereafter she joined the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. (January-December 1993)
- Assignment as an H-46 Project Officer an T-2 V-22 Chase Pilot at the Rotary Wing Aircraft Test Directorate (RWATD)
- Assignment at RWATD as squadron Safety Officer
- Flying test flights in “SH-60B/F, UH-1, AH‑1W, SH-2, VH-3, H-46, CH-53 and the H-57” (NASA)
- Earning her Master of Science degree in Engineering Management at the Florida Institute of Technology (1995)
- Returning to NTPS, this time as Rotary Wing Department instructor and the school Safety Officer (December 1995)
- Flying, while at NTPS, the OH-6, OH-58 and UH-60
- Assignment to Norfolk, Virginia as Aircraft Handler and Assistant Air Boss onboard the LHA-2 USS Saipan
It was while deployed aboard the Saipan that Williams was selected for the NASA astronaut program.
A veteran of two space missions and training for her third, Williams was first a member of Expeditions 14 and 15 to the International Space Station from 2006 to 2007; then, in 2012, she joined Expedition 32 as a flight engineer and, later that same year, commanded Expedition 33.
According to Sunita Williams NASA.gov profile, she is presently training for her third long-duration mission aboard the International Space Station and the first mission of the Starliner spacecraft from Boeing since its certification. This will make her part of the craft’s second crewed flight.
If these test missions with a human crew prove successful, the next steps will be to provide the International Space Station with crew transportation services roundtrip and, alongside CrewDragon and SpaceX, to bring back to the U.S. the ability to launch people into space.
Spacewalks… and Runs
So far, Williams has participated in seven spacewalks, giving her the world record at the time for the most by a woman; she first achieved this record after conducting the first four of them for a total of 29 hours, 17 minutes. She now holds second place for that world record. She also holds the distinction for clocking the most time spacewalking by a woman, at 50 hours and 40 minutes and is ranked the eighth most experienced spacewalker.
She set another world record on April 16, 2007, completing the Boston Marathon in space in four hours, 24 minutes. In September 2012, she also became the first person to finish a triathlon in space, the California Nautica Malibu Triathlon. She completed it using a treadmill, a stationary bicycle and, for the swimming portion, an Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED), most commonly used for weightlifting and resistance training, though it also qualifies in microgravity as equivalent to swimming. It took her one hour, 48 minutes to complete the race.
Honors and Accolades
Medals and Awards
Among the medals Williams has received include:
- Achievement Medal
- Humanitarian Service Medal
- Medal “For Merit in Space Exploration”
- NASA Spaceflight Medal
- Navy Commendation Medal
- Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal
- National Defense Service Medal
- Padma Bhushan Congressional Space Medal of Honor
- Women in Space Science Award
Williams was also the first person of Indian descent not a citizen of the country to receive the World Gujarati Society’s esteemed Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Vishwa Pratibha Award. She also met then-Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, while speaking at the American Embassy School.
In the Media
Williams has often appeared as a featured subject in the press. In 2017, NPR member station WBUR Radio Boston featured Williams in a piece entitled “Astronaut Sunita Williams On Her Time In Space And ‘The Mars Generation'” This was in relation to her featured appearance in the documentary film “The Mars Generation”, about a new era of teenage astronauts who aspire to visit Mars. During the interview for the WBUR piece, Williams revealed that one of the most amazing things she’s seen in space–because she insists she can’t pick just one–is the aurora borealis as seen from above. “When you see it from above looking down below, and see that energy hitting the earth, it’s spectacular,” she says. “And you got to wonder — there is a lot of energy out there in the universe that we have no idea how to capture and use. Our problems here on earth are a little slim compared to the real deal.” She admits elsewhere in the interview that commanding a space station involved taking things one step, one day at a time, and that spacewalking itself is, at once, scary, overwhelming and beautiful.
The following year, “The Verge” featured Williams in a piece called “NASA veteran Sunita Williams tells us what it’s like to get ready to fly a new spacecraft” about her then-latest foray into commercial piloting. Specifically, the assignment was to command the CST-100 Starliner, Boeing’s new space capsule, in its premiere operational flight. While she graciously offered a great deal of insight into the project’s formation, training process and upcoming launch, much of the interview she also spent talking about her family. For example, she spoke of how wonderful it was to be training for the operation in the U.S. near her family and how the aspect of the flight she was looking most forward to was coming back to Earth so she could spend some time with her new niece and nephew.
For over 20 years, Williams, also known as Sunita Lyn Williams, Sunita L. Williams, Sunita Pandya and, simply, Suni, has been married to Oregon-based Federal police officer Michael J. Williams. Both partners share the distinction of having flown helicopters in their respective careers’ early days. The couple have no children, though, in 2012, Sunita expressed wanting to adopt a girl from Gujarat, India. She and her husband do have a pet Jack Russell terrier named Gorby, once featured on the National Geographic Channel TV show “Dog Whisperer”. Other hobbies Williams and her husband enjoy include working on houses, cars, airplanes and working out as well as camping and hiking.
According to background in WBUR’s 2017 interview of Williams, she’d spent 322 days in space at the time of writing.
Williams started her career as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, commissioned in May 1987. In 1998, when NASA selected her as an astronaut, Sunita Williams age was thirty-three.
Williams was born on September 19, 1965 in Euclid, Ohio and raised in Falmouth and, later, Needham, Massachusetts, where she attended high school and which she considers her hometown. Her father, Dr. Deepak Pandya, is an Indian American neuroanatomist, and her mother, Ursuline Bonnie Pandya, is a third-generationSlovene-American immigrant. She has two older siblings: brother Jay Thomas and sister Dina Anna, four and three years older, respectively.
According to Idol Networth, Williams is worth approximately $7 million. This includes approximately $400,000 in annual salary.