Sunita Williams, a native of Needham, has traveled far beyond Massachusetts as part of her work as an astronaut at the International Space Station. She served as the commander of the space station in 2012, and has spent a total 322 days in space. She also has spent more than 50 hours on space walks alone.
She is featured in the new documentary film "The Mars Generation," which looks at a new generation of teenagers who are preparing to go to Mars in this century.
"The Mars Generation" is playing at the Woods Hole Film Festival on Sunday at 5 p.m. Williams will also be speaking on a panel about science and storytelling on Sunday at 2 p.m.
On her path to becoming an astronaut
It was a little bit of a happenstance, and a lot of good luck, and a lot of perseverance. I wanted to be a veterinarian, and go to school in Boston. It didn't quite work out that way, and I ended up joining the Navy as a suggestion of my big brother. It was really awesome, and I didn't realize it at the time, but provided a lot of leadership and followership teamwork opportunities. And it led me down the path to become a helicopter pilot and a test pilot. It was the shoe in the door to making me understand that, hey — things are possible. And I got down to NASA at Johnson Space Center and realized that I could do the things those guys were doing, like anybody can when they have that opportunity and take it.
On her time as a commander on the International Space Station
It was awesome. A huge responsibility. But just like in the movie "The Martian," you take it one step at a time. You don't look at the big problem all together, because I think it's a little intimidating. So you just take it one day at a time, meet the people who are going to meet with you, for you, and who you're going to work for, and really try to do the best job that you can. That's all teamwork, and that's what space travel is about.
On what it's like to do a spacewalk
It's a little scary at times, when it's just your visor between you and the outside, not-so-nice area of space where there's no air to breathe — a vacuum that's really hot, and really cold. So that's scary. But you take it one step at a time. You have a lot of things to do when you're out on a space walk, and that sort of overwhelms your mind. You're like, "I've got to get this test done, and this test done." But you can't help every now and then stopping, and looking at where you are, and watching the world whiz by you — and just going, "Whoah! But — never mind — just keep working, just keep working." It is an incredible view, an incredible place to work, and it's the culmination of a huge team of people making it work for the astronauts who are just out there doing their jobs.
On what her time in space has taught her about the challenges facing potential Mars astronauts
You are away from home, and you do miss your family and your friends, and of course I missed my dog. But you have the ability to call home, and the ability to video conference on the weekends. We're close to Earth, and we only have about a half-second of delay when we're talking. But when you take that trip and are going to Mars, you're going to have a long delay. You're not going to be able to have those instant conversations. You're going to need to know how to fix things without calling home to ask how to do it. So there's going to be a lot of different challenges for that crew, and that crew needs to know that they'll be gone for a long time. I knew I would be gone for 6 months, and maybe a little bit more. [People going to Mars] need to go into this knowing that you might be gone for a year and a half or so. You're not going to be able to text to your friends and family like people are used to doing here. It's going to take a little while to get that communication back and forth.
On whether the golden age of manned missions to space through NASA has passed, with the advent of space trips through the private sector.
This is all a partnership. There's been so much technology that has transpired over the last 20, 30 years, and it's time to move that into the spacecraft. Who can better do that than the technology gurus out there who have been working in some of these companies? We're really excited to see what their innovative ideas bring to the table when they create these spacecraft. They're going to solve the problem for us of low-earth orbit, which means going to the International Space Station and delivering people. And that frees up NASA to work on exploration. The thing that we all want to do is get out of low-earth orbit and go farther, so we can figure out that problem of how to go to Mars. So we have a lot on our plate, but we are working hand-in-hand with these companies, so we can leverage information and technology off each other. And my personal opinion, Suni Williams — I think that when we really leave the planet — we all go as humans, not as people from one country or another. We are humans, we work together. This is our only planet as human beings that we know of. So we all should have an interest in preserving it.
On the idea of space tourism
I think it's great. If these companies can go out there and lower the price for folks to go to space, that's going to enhance space travel and make it safer. We've gone through this kind of evolution with aircraft, and aircraft are pretty darn safe. We joke that one day, we'll have a space station on the moon, and the tourists up there will be going, "Where's my spacecraft to get me home? It's 10 minutes late!" Just like we do when we're standing in the airline line waiting to board our aircraft. I think it's a good thing. It's progress. It's evolution. We're going to make it all happen. And I think this next generation of kids in high school and younger — we've got to set the stage for them, and they are going to make it happen.
On the most amazing thing she's ever witnessed in space
There's so many things to say, but one things is the aurora. Watching the aurora from above is pretty spectacular. We live up here in the north, and sometimes we go to see our northern neighbors, where we can see the aurora at night, and see it above you and it's cool. But when you see it from above looking down below, and see that energy hitting the earth, it's spectacular. 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.
This segment aired on July 28, 2017.