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