Sunita Williams wasn't the kind of kid who wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up. She wanted to be a veterinarian. But she managed to achieve the former kid's dream job, anyway.
Williams, 52, has completed two missions to the International Space Station, spending over 11 months orbiting the Earth in total. She's also noted for her total cumulative spacewalk time, having spent 50 hours and 40 minutes outside the International Space Station. She has continued her career in space on Earth as a member of NASA's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), a group of veteran astronauts that works with privately held companies like Space X and Boeing to develop spacecraft.
Part of her job is to verify that the companies' spacecraft can launch, maneuver in orbit and dock to stationary spacecraft like the ISS. NASA announced the CCtCap in 2015 as part of "the Obama Administration's plan to partner with U.S. industry to transport astronauts to space, create good-paying American jobs and end the nation's sole reliance on Russia for space travel."
"This is really different from my old job, you know," Williams said. When she became an astronaut, the shuttle was already laid out. "It was all documented and out there, and [I] went through classes to understand all the systems," she said. "The plan was there, and you had to get this, this and this done before you could go fly out in space."
Her path to the stars began with the Navy. Williams graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a bachelor's degree in physical science in 1987. After graduation, she was designated a Basic Diving Officer at the Naval Coastal System Command. She was designated a naval aviator in 1989 and went on to log more than 3,000 flight hours in more than 30 different aircraft.
Williams received a master's degree in engineering management from the Florida Institute of Technology in 1995. In 1997, she, along with more than 100 other people, applied for a position as an astronaut. After more than a year of interviewing, she was selected by NASA in June 1998. Williams spent five months training for her first mission, and received intensive instruction in shuttle and ISS systems, and water and wilderness survival techniques. Williams also spent nine days underwater in NASA's undersea Aquarius laboratory.
Williams took her first ride into space on Dec. 9, 2006, aboard the STS-116. "We were hootin' and hollering," Williams said of her first takeoff. "It is like the best roller coaster ride you've ever been on."
"You take your gloves off, your gloves start to float," she recalled. "It's a whole different mindset. It's pretty spectacular."
Williams served as Expedition 14/15's flight engineer and returned to Earth on June 22, 2007. On July 14, 2012, Williams returned to the ISS as part of Expedition 32/33 to conduct general research abroad the orbiting laboratory. She returned to Earth on Nov. 18, 2012.
For Williams, every day at the International Space Station was different. "One day you might be cleaning the toilet, next day you might be doing some potentially Nobel Prize-winning science," she said.
Williams says that during her two long stays aboard the ISS, she and her fellow crew members worked to keep a normal earthbound schedule and a sense of regularity to their days. "We get up at 6 o' clock or so, and there's daily planning conferences with control centers all over the world," she said.
On Fridays, the astronauts would indulge in films from both Russia and the United States. Williams recalled that Groundhog Day was a favorite, given how repetitive the days aboard the ISS could feel. By the time she returned permanently to Earth in 2012, she had spent 322 total days in space — at the time, her combined stints were the longest on record for female astronauts.
Since the discontinuation of NASA's space shuttle program in 2011, U.S. astronauts have had to rely on Russian shuttles to get into orbit — which Williams and her internationally sourced crew did during her 2012 mission. Compared to its heyday, publicly funded space travel in the U.S. was no longer a hugely viable option for those wishing to explore space — but as it turned out, private space travel was.
Privately funded companies such as Space X and Boeing have made it their business over the past two decades to take over some parts of space travel from NASA. That business is booming — just last month, Space X successfully launched the most powerful rocket in decades. The launch was one small step toward Space X founder Elon Musk's ultimate vision: a colony of a million people living on Mars.
In order to achieve those otherworldly ambitions, Space X and other private companies need the right kind of people working for them — people like Williams.
The space machinery of private companies that Williams now supports are still works-in-progress. "They don't really have training systems established for them yet," she said. "We're sort of creating that right now with the folks at the companies." That means deciding what things are important for astronauts to know — "classic things like getting in your seat, reach[ing] all the controls," she said. "We're establishing all that with the companies right now." Her contributions have helped to build the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Dragon.
Williams' work has also provided transportation for NASA astronauts to her old base, the ISS. And more broadly, Williams says that private space companies just want to keep learning and exploring. Though she works with familiar components and protocols, she says her new job feels like a new frontier. Williams hopes to revisit the ISS in the future on the very spacecraft she's helping to develop.
"We want to keep finding the next thing," she said. "And this type of exploration with a common goal, a common good of looking at something farther and bigger than ourselves. It totally opens the door for collaboration and cooperation for people from all over the world."
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Now the latest installment in our series Brave New Workers about people adapting to the changing economy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I need a job, and I don't have a skill set other than flying.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Maybe I don't just need a different teaching job. Maybe I need a different career.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: In 1979, I started my trucking career. And I wanted to have the American dream.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MCCAMMON: It's difficult to think of a more quintessential government project than space travel.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN F. KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are.
MCCAMMON: But funding priorities have shifted. The U.S. shuttle program shut down in 2011. Since then, U.S. astronauts have relied on Russian spacecraft to reach the International Space Station. But NASA is now handing off some of the work it used to do to private companies like SpaceX and Boeing. And that means new jobs for those helping with the transition.
SUNITA WILLIAMS: I'm a member of this - what we call the commercial crew cadre in our astronaut office.
MCCAMMON: That's astronaut Sunita Williams, who was the second female commander of the space station. Now, she's one of a small group of NASA astronauts helping SpaceX and other companies test and tweak their designs for technologies that will eventually carry astronauts into orbit and beyond.
WILLIAMS: Like a consultant, making sure their spacecraft is ready to go.
MCCAMMON: Williams is still excited, recounting the day of her first launch in 2006 after years of preparation.
WILLIAMS: Launch day was unbelievable.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: T-minus four minutes and counting.
WILLIAMS: You're like, oh, my gosh, we're really going to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Ten seconds.
WILLIAMS: And then the main engines light. And the spacecraft moves.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We have liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery as we continue building the International Space Station.
WILLIAMS: And three of us on the mid deck were rookies. And we were just hooting and hollering because it is like the best roller coaster ride you've ever been on. All that momentum, all that vibration, all that noise is just, you know - you are part of it, and it's just launching off the planet. And then as soon as the main engines shut off, you're just floating.
And we were laughing hysterically as your pen starts to float. You take your gloves off, the gloves start to float. It's pretty spectacular.
I've lived in this space station for two what we call long-duration increments. So my first time was 6 1/2 months. The second time was about 4 1/2 months. And every day is different. You know, one day, you might be cleaning the toilet. The next day, you might be doing some potentially Nobel Prize-winning science.
Because we're up there for long-duration missions, we really try to keep a normal day, sort of emulating what we do on Earth. So generally, we get up at, you know, 6 o'clock or so, and then there's daily planning conferences with control centers all over the world. We get to work, and that might be getting ready for a spacewalk, might be doing a spacewalk, might be doing science experiments. Friday night is Friday night. And when I was up there, we tried to get together and maybe watch an American movie or a Russian movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GROUNDHOG DAY")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) It's Groundhog Day.
WILLIAMS: Bill Murray was a favorite, so "Groundhog Day" was sort of a funny movie to watch when you're up there because you sort of feel like you're in a Groundhog Day.
MCCAMMON: While she was up there, Sunita Williams set a record for number of spacewalks and longest space walk by a female astronaut. In 2015, NASA chose her for its commercial crew program, which advises the private companies contracted by NASA. She says even though she's working with familiar components and protocols, her new job feels like a new frontier.
WILLIAMS: This is really different from my old job. You know, I became an astronaut, learned everything I could about the shuttle and went through classes to understand all the systems, went through simulators. It was all laid out already. The plan was there. And you had to get this, this, this and this done before you can go fly in space, right? These systems - they're brand new. They don't really have training systems established for them yet. We're sort of creating that right now with the folks at the companies. We're talking about, like, what things are important? How much does the astronaut really need to know? And you know, just also the classic things like getting in the space suit. Can you do it fast, you know, in case you have an emergency? Can you get in your seat? Can I reach all the controls. We're establishing all that right now.
It's just the right time for private companies to do space. NASA's been going to International Space Station for a number of years. The shuttle was pretty expensive, and it was old, frankly - you know, 1970s technology. Looked like an old 737, you know, with a cockpit full of switches.
Commercial space is definitely going to benefit all of us in some form or fashion, right? You know, it's providing transportation for NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. So that's in the immediate future. But when you step back and look at what's going on, this is research and development in rocketry of how to make systems safer for space travel with new ideas and new manufacturing techniques, which will make spacecraft safer and smarter and better.
We want to keep reaching. We want to keep learning. We want to keep finding the next thing. And this type of exploration with a common goal, a common good of looking at something farther and bigger than ourselves, totally opens the door for collaboration and cooperation for people from all over the world.
MCCAMMON: That's astronaut Sunita Williams. She's one of the voices from our series Brave New Workers about adapting to a changing economy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.