Sunita Williams addressing SIBF 2023 at Expo Centre Sharjah Image Credit: Supplied

Sharjah: The UAE choosing a female astronaut is a huge step for the entire region, NASA’s veteran astronaut Sunita Williams has said.

Williams, who had set several records including one for the longest spaceflight by a US woman and another for the most extended cumulative time spent on spacewalks by a female astronaut, spoke to Gulf News ahead of her first session at the ongoing 42nd Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF).

Sunita Williams with students at the book fair Image Credit: Supplied

Having a qualified female astronaut like Nora Al Matrooshi who is ready to go to space is a significant milestone, said Williams who has accumulated a total of 322 days in space, ranking her as the second woman with the longest US space mission duration in history.

“I think just picking her is a huge step because then little girls in this country and the region can see themselves stepping in her footsteps and doing it.”

She said it provides an inspirational role model for both young girls and boys, not only in her home country but also in the broader region. When children, especially girls, see someone like Nora achieving great feats in space exploration, they can envision themselves following in her footsteps.

Training UAE astronauts

“I think Nora has an NBL run coming up and then I will help work with her in the near future, maybe by the end of November.”

NBL is NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory where astronauts are trained especially for their future spacewalks.

Williams shared her positive experiences with UAE astronauts Hazzaa Al Mansoori and Sultan Al Neyadi, having met them during their training in Russia. She commended their dedication and expressed her delight at seeing them join the astronaut community.

She recalled Al Mansoori telling her about watching her video of getting into the ISS. “It was pretty humbling to hear that.”

She said all four UAE astronauts including Mohammed Al Mulla are “integrated in all aspects of what our astronaut corps is doing. So we bump into them all the time, just as friends and colleagues as well as helping them train.”

“Recently, Hazzaa and I did some preparation studies on how to transfer cargo on the moon and also did some underwater diving in California to imitate what we are going to do on the moon. I have had some great interactions with all four of them and look forward to Nora Al Matrooshi and Mohammed Al Mulla flying.”

In her second session at SIBF on Thursday night, Williams will be joined by Al Mansoori.

Women in space

Williams noted that having both men and women in space programmes brings diverse perspectives, making the team more balanced and effective. “Some people joke around that the boys keep the station (International Space Station) a little bit cleaner when the women are up there,” she said, laughing.

When asked about the major challenges women astronauts face in space, Williams acknowledged that female astronauts often do not have the opportunity to share their experiences with other women in space.

“It is like you don’t have your sister to talk to… Sometimes you got to call back down and call your sister or your mother to have that conversation. So I think that for me was the one thing that I missed. I haven’t been up there with another woman but I hope we’re changing that. We are getting more and more women in the Astronaut Corps from other countries as well as United States, which is really awesome.”

She also pointed out physical challenges, such as size and strength differences, particularly during spacewalks. Spacesuits historically favoured larger individuals, but efforts are underway to accommodate a wider range of body sizes, especially for female astronauts, she pointed out.

Major contributions

Despite all the physical challenges, Williams participated in numerous scientific experiments, ran a marathon aboard the ISS and dedicated 50 hours and 40 minutes to spacewalks. At one point, she held the record for the most time spent by a woman in Extravehicular Activity.

Yet, she believes that her most significant contribution is serving as a role model for young individuals with big dreams and instilling the belief that anyone can be part of something bigger than themselves.

Williams said she is passionate about sharing her story with children to inspire them to pursue their dreams. She highlighted that her journey was filled with opportunities, including failures that provided valuable learning experiences.

Reflecting on her memorable moments in space, she expressed how the responsibility of representing her country while in space was more profound than she initially anticipated. Williams recalled a pivotal moment when her American counterpart left, leaving her with two Russian colleagues. She felt the weight of representing her nation and humanity in space, which left a lasting impression on her.

Current goal

Presently, she is gearing up for her upcoming mission involving Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. Williams, who has been working on the Starliner spacecraft for the past eight years, revealed the mission is expected to take off next year.

Regarding her current preparations, Williams said she is actively involved in testing and developing the new spacecraft, the launch system and the human landing system. She expressed excitement about contributing to the future of space exploration.

Williams is at SIBF to talk about the book 'Sunita Williams: A Star in Space', which narrates her life till her two space expeditions that ended in 2012.

When asked about the possibility of another book on her, Williams expressed her interest in sharing stories about space and related experiences if there’s a compelling reason to do so. She mentioned a book her mother wrote from her dog’s perspective during her space mission as a unique and fun approach to storytelling.

Inspiring children

“Whatever you want to do in life, first get to the starting line, remember what you learnt in kindergarten, and stop to take a look at the foliage,” the celebrated Indian-origin astronaut told the UAE’s schoolchildren about the lessons she learnt from her journey to space at her session in SIBF.

“I didn’t realise that being a diver and helicopter pilot would put me in line for going to space”, the inspirational American astronaut told the packed room.

An athlete and swimmer from a young age, the astronaut confessed that although she did not know what to do after high school, she joined the Naval Academy on her brother’s advice where she learnt to be a diver and pilot.