Sumithra Sathyan | 01-June-2014

Detailed News

US astronaut of Indian descent, Sunita Williams,who travelled 195 days to reach her space abode and spent almost one year there in two missions unravels the mysteries of living  in space in an email interview facilitated by NASA  to Sumithra Sathyan,Co-ordinating Editor of Future  Medicine

By Sumithra Sathyan

Sunita Williams, the second woman of Indian origin to have been selected by NASA for a space mission after Kalpna Chawla. She holds three records for female space Travellers, longest space flight (195 days) number of space walks (four) and total time spent on space walks (29 hours and 17 minutes).

Sunita Williams is an American citizen  of Indian origin. She was born on 19th September 1965 at Euclid-Ohio in the US. Her parents Deepak Pandya and Bonnie Pandya reside in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Dr. Deepak Pandya is a famous neuroanatomist. Williamss roots on her fathers side go back to Gujarat in India and she has been to India to visit her fathers family in 2007. She is married to Michael Williams.

American Space Agency NASA selected Sunita Williams in June 1998 and her training was started in August 1998. During the training she   developed the skills in technical briefings Physiological training and preparing for T 38 flight training, as well as learning water and wilderness survival techniques.

In 2008, Williams was designated as NASAs Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office, and has served in that role through her most recent mission back to space. On July 15, 2012, she launched aboard the Russian spacecraft Soyuz TMA-05M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome as a part of Expedition 32. Two days later, the spacecraft docked with the ISS for a four month stay. In September, Williams became the Commander of Expedition 33, making her the second woman to ever hold that role.

During that same month, she performed her sixth spacewalk, regaining her record for most spacewalks performed by a woman. She also became the first person to do a triathlon in space, after completing the Nautica Malibu Triathlon. While the main event was held in Southern California, Williams used the ISS treadmill, stationary bike, and the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device to complete exercises that equaled swimming in microgravity.

When you work outside the Space Station would you float away if you let go? There will be a total change in the daily  routine  of an astronaut in space, such as a change in the sleep-wake schedules, In fact, can you sleep at all on the spaceship or whether you have to keep awake throughout your stay. Considering sleep is a must for any being on earth to maintain body balance and strength, how will a sleepless or irregular sleep affect your health?

We have a safety tether that is a line of wire that holds us to the structure of the ISS. We also have cloth tethers and a rigid tether which we use when we need to let go and use both hands for some work we are performing. If the wire tether broke for some reason and we werent holding on we could float away pretty easily. In that case we have a SAFER (Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue), which is like a little jet pack on our backs that we can use to fly ourselves back to the ISS. Although we are trained to use it, we try very hard not to get into a situation where we would have to. We sleep in sleep stations. These are little rooms that each of us have. They are like the size of a refrigerator. In there we have our personal items and a sleeping bag. The sleeping bag is tied to the wall so we dont float all over the place. We usually try to sleep about 8 hours. We are on Greenwich Mean Time usually.

What do you eat? What is your favourite space food? If you  fall sick, for some reasons, what are the effective measures to meet such a situation?

We have food from both the U.S. and Russia. It comes in a couple different packages. Some of it we re-hydrate, some of it is in cans, and some of it just needs to be heated up. There are all sorts of foods, from lasagna to chicken with peanut sauce to lamb with vegetables or fish with seasoning. We also have all kinds of vegetables, but again they are not fresh. Usually they need to be re-hydrated. Dessert comes in all shapes and sizes, from dried fruit, to cookies, to candy, berry cobbler and brownies.Our food is half Russian and half American. Some of it is dehydratedand some of it is ready to eat. All we really do it hydrate food and heat it up.All of this type of food is in a package and just needs to be heated up in the oven. There is a lot of variety even in the desserts which include things like candy, pudding, fruit cocktail and cookies. On the Russian side we have beef, lamb, chicken and rice or potatoes in a can usually. The cans just need to be heated and then we eat right out of them.The food is generally bland  so we have bottles of sauces to spice it up, like hot sauce andsoy sauce.

It is reported that astronauts in microgravity usually lose their sense of direction and feel uncoordinated or clumsy and  it takes time for the human brain to adjust to  the  new terms of  life in space. Could you  give some details about the condition  and how they overcome this situation?

Just like the muscles and bones, the body starts to adapt! Fluid shifts since gravity is not keeping it down. For example, most astronauts look like their heads have swelled up a bit once on orbit. That is the fluid shift keeping more fluid in your upper body since it doesnt have gravity pulling it down. Likewise, our hearts may not be working as hard because they dont have to pull the blood up from the lower extremities of our legs.  It is hard to understand just how adapted we are to gravity and how everything our body does is based on living in a gravity environment. What is really amazing is how well the human body can figure out what it needs to do to adapt and it does. The human body is an incredible machine, so take care of yours.

What can you see in space from the Space Station? Asteroids? Garbage? Exploding stars? What is the temperature where you are? Is it hot or cold?

Well, we arent that much closer to those things than you are. We are only about 200-250 miles above the Earth. So, we just see things a little clearer than you do on Earth because we have no atmosphere up here to blur the view. We can see the darkness of space pretty clearly and the thin layer of our atmosphere that protects our planet from space. It is nice inside the Space Station. The temperature is usually around 75 degrees F. We work in T-shirts and shorts, but sometimes need a sweatshirt. Outside the temperature varies quite a bit. There is no atmosphere to speak of to protect us from temperatures outside which range from about -200 to +200 degrees F. There is thermal shielding on the Station as well as on the space suits to keep us the right temperature.

Do you have to change the clocks in your computers to match up with those on Earth, because time goes slower for you when you are going so fast? How do you know if it’s day or night?

We work off of Greenwich Mean Time. But there is a difference in our time versus the ground time. That is because we get our time from GPS. Since these are satellites, their time does drift, so there is actually about 14 seconds difference between the time onboard and that on the ground. That difference has grown throughout the 7 years life of this Station, so it isnt too much. Unfortunately, I dont think I am getting any younger up here even though we are travelling at approximately 17,500 mph. It keeps changing. In our one-day of 24 hours, there are 16 sunrises and sunsets. In an orbit we see 45 minutes of daylight and 45 minutes of night approximately. We have windows so we can see if it is daylight or night outside. Our day is really just dictated by time. For example, right now we get up at 02:00 GMT and go to sleep at 17:30 GMT.

People on earth take breaks in between their work. Since there is only one work schedule in space, I presume, how do you manage it?

We do take some breaks out there. We take a little rest and take pictures, or just take a break. The work isnt strenuous all the time, just at times. Moving around is really pretty effortless. When you are trying to move something, like a valve or manipulate a tool, that can be difficult. We have a tethers and a semi rigid ball-stack, we call a BRT, body restraint tether. So, if we do get tired of holding on, we put one of these tethers on to the surface of the Station and then can let go. The tethers work very well to hold us in place so we dont have to spend the effort doing so.The EVAs count as exercise time and I would agree it is a physical activity. I was pretty tired after each of my EVAs. I dont think it is like lifting weights or sprinting the entire time. It is more like a marathon, so you just get tired after a while.

An astronaut faces a long-term isolation from his/her family and friends. He is forced to live in close quarters with other astronauts, There is literally no mobility, life is rather monotonous and the only thing what he/she can watch is the earth. How will he/she overcome such a situation?

we have videoconferences with our families every couple weeks. We also have a phone up here that works when we are in contact with certain satellites. So we can call home every orbit for about 15minutes.

What did you miss the most from Earth?

My family, my dog (Gorby), and dunking cookies in milk.

Why did you want to be an astronaut?

Oh, becoming an astronaut for me was a little bit of happenstance. You know, its interesting, some people have since they were a little, little kid, thats all they wanted to do was be an astronaut; well, I never thought it was possible. I mean, I grew up in a family with a, a dad who immigrated from a, India, and my mother who was an X-ray technician in a hospital, they, met each other when he was going through residency and there was nothing in my past that had lended itself to anything, that had to do with space except for watching The Jetsons and Star Trek and stuff when I was little.

So I never thought it was possible. I mean, it just wasnt a topic in our, in our household, it was more about, you know, medicineI loved animals, I wanted to be a vet, veterinarianand then my brother went to the Naval Academy, my sister went to Smith College, and Im lookin’—Im the youngest oneIm looking after that, what would, what would I want to do? And my brother was, of course, pursuing engineering, my sister was biochemistry, and I was thinking, biochemistry seems way too hard for me, so, the plans of being a veterinarian were sort of put on the side as my brother, talked me into going to the Naval Academy, and he did because I like outdoorsy things and he knew he could hook me with that.

He said, Suni, you get to jump out of airplanes and do parachuting and go camping and stuff like that, and I was like, oh, OK. And so I sort of  fell into that and I think Im just as stubborn as my parents and my brother and sister where when we start something we really dont like to, quit in the middle of it.

 I was I ended up being a helicopter pilot and had the opportunity to go to Test Pilot School, and that was the, the very first time it even dawned on me that, that, you know, this was a pathway to be an astronaut cause we are able to come down to Johnson Space Center for a tour as our Test Pilot School class did every, once a year, and here I met John Young for the first time who talked about landing on the moon and talked about used a vertical landing system to land on the moonoh, that sounds like helicopters so, I thought, wow, maybe I have what it takes to be an astronaut  if I get my masters degree.

Sunita Williams revels in the sun’s bright light while floating outside the International Space Station. The image was taken during a spacewalk to finish repairs on a vital power unit on Sept. 5,2012. The photo shows Williams, in a spacesuit, appearing to grab the sun with her right hand during a break from space station repairs. Her crewmate Akihiko Hoshide, of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, snapped the spacewalk photo during a rest break

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