NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, 47, is only the second woman to command the International Space Station. She tells Stylist what it’s like being one of the few females in space
Photos: Rex Features and Nasa
"Within a 24-hour period, the International Space Station (ISS) orbits the planet 16 times, so in an average day in space, I see 16 sunrises and sunsets. We have to travel around the earth at that speed (five miles per second) just to maintain orbit at our altitude, which is about 250 miles above the planet. It’s impossible to use sunlight to create a sense of time so we create our own nights and days based on Greenwich Mean Time using artificial light. We get up at 6am and head to bed around 11pm – it’s important both physically and psychologically to keep a regular circadian rhythm going. When you’re all the way up there, you need to still feel connected to Earth.
Being an astronaut is like being a piece of equipment – you’re part of something far bigger, a contributor to a larger picture with many goals. The primary purpose of the ISS is scientific experimentation, typically on how life is affected by and survives in the conditions of space. We help carry out those experiments (I have a degree in Physical Sciences) and have different roles on every mission. Each trip you’re assigned a position which can be pilot, flight engineer or, as on my last flight, commander, which means you have ultimate responsibility for the crew, their safety and the success of the mission.
Sunita's official Nasa photo ahead of her first flight in 2006
I’ve spent a total of 321 days, 17 hours and 15 minutes in space over seven different missions – my last mission in 2012 lasted for almost four months. Was I ready to leave by the end of it? No. I’d have loved to have stayed for longer. Of course you miss people back on Earth, particularly my husband, but time goes by so fast. Each time you go into space you never know if it’s going to be your last trip – you simply might never get the opportunity again. The way I see it, I’ve already lived 40-something years on Earth so spending just one of the ones I have left in space isn’t a huge deal. I love this planet, though. When I’m in space, I miss rain. I miss the breeze. I miss smelling dirt. I miss going for a walk with my dog. And I miss food that isn’t rehydrated.
All the meals we have on board are already dehydrated and drinks are powdered. We add water to them through a tube and, if it’s a hot meal, heat them in a convection oven. You usually put each packet of food in a container that’s attached to a table with Velcro and straps. Like anything else, food can float. Which can be fun when you eat dried fruit out of the air like a fish, but is more of a problem with something hot like coffee. We drink through a straw with a safety clamp. When you’re not taking a sip, you need to make sure it’s locked or you’ll end up with a sphere of hot coffee floating above your head. We eat three times a day, and they’re not bad at all – lasagne, sweet and sour tofu, BBQ beef brisket. We might be on board with Russians and Japanese, so all tastes are catered for. However there’s probably about 16 days’ worth of food and then the menu starts to repeat itself. Luckily we have a lot of sauces to change things up. You become quite reliant on garlic paste.
Nobody wears shoes in the space station unless they’re exercising on the treadmill or exercise bike. Every second you’re in space, your body is deteriorating – when your muscles and bones are no longer working against gravity, it causes them to shrink – so you have to exercise. We do an hour of aerobic exercise a day to keep up cardiovascular activity and an hour of resistance training to recreate the load that we work against every day on Earth just by competing with gravity. You can’t stop working out. You’d lose weight quickly and your bones might even deteriorate to the point where they won’t be able to regenerate back on Earth. It’s essential to maintain bone density and muscle mass. I’ve run marathons and triathlons in space with my colleagues handing me oranges and cheering me on.
We have separate clothes for exercise and then get changed into our regular work gear, a practical ensemble of socks, T-shirt and cargo pants. Practicality is key. We’re not just astronauts and scientists up there, we’re the plumbers and the electricians too, keeping up the maintenance of the station, so zip pockets are pretty useful to stop things floating off. I’ll usually Velcro my iPad to my leg [the ISS has had a live internet connection since 2010]. We don’t do laundry in space. We wear the same outfit for a week and then downgrade it to an exercise outfit before throwing it away (rubbish is kept in sealed bags and brought back to Earth). You really don’t get that stinky up in space because there just isn’t the dirt that there is down on Earth. It’s not completely sterile and there are slightly gross aspects, like if you lose the callouses from the bottom of your feet, little pieces of dry skin fly around. But there’s a ventilation system which keeps all of that stuff going in the right direction and you feel pretty clean most of the time. Of course, we still sweat after exercise so we ‘shower’ every day using warm water from a pouch and bodywash on a wet towel. Washing your hair is a bit of a hassle because if you don’t do it carefully then little water bubbles will go floating off everywhere. I use a no-rinse shampoo, although the Russians have a rinse-off herbal version. Hair is fairly easy to maintain in space – it floats too so it’s not falling down in front of your face and getting in your way.
Sunita participates in Space Shuttle Discovery's mission in 2006
Enjoying the view
One of the easiest ways to spend your time – and actually it’s really addictive – is simply to look out of the window. I used to play a game with myself where I’d try to identify what I was looking at without consulting a map. You really get to know the Earth; South America is darker because of the rainforest and Africa has a big desert and, of course, the dunes in the Middle East. At night you see how it’s lit up. It’s beautiful and it gives you a new perspective – not just in the literal sense. You can’t help but feel connected to it and the people down there. Whenever I talk to my family, I get a little emotional, not just because I miss them but because I have a sudden burst of clarity about what’s important in life. Down on earth, we get distracted by traffic jams and how much a cup of coffee costs when we could be just enjoying our planet and appreciating the people around us.
Thankfully, it’s surprisingly easy to keep in touch with people. For every hour we orbit, the team gets around 30 minutes of communication. We’re not on the phone on an hourly basis, but once a day I’ll call someone back on earth, either my husband or my family or friends. Then, once a week, we have what’s essentially a Skype meeting so I see their faces. Of course it’s emotional saying goodbye to my husband and family before a mission. This isn’t a risk-free job and there’s always a chance that you won’t come home. You wouldn’t be human if there wasn’t an element of fear. Every time I’ve been into space, I’ve done my deep and meaningful goodbyes about a month before. I felt I really needed to get my life squared away with my family and friends. Once I’d done that and dealt with all of that emotion, all of the scared feelings went away and I was ready to go and in the zone for final training. Your family are always on your mind though. On my first flight, my mom gave me a St Christopher medal. I kept it for my second flight and took one for each of my crew too. Before we take off, we get to choose a ‘last supper’ and I choose my dad’s favourite meal: tomato soup and a cheese sandwich.
You don’t just become an astronaut. I spent 11 years in the US Navy, first as a naval aviator and then as a test pilot and instructor. Physical demands for selection are fairly similar to what’s required for the military [NASA astronauts also need a degree in engineering, science or mathematics]. We’re all in good shape. You’ve got to be strong enough to move around in the 300lb space suit used on spacewalks.
Sunita and fellow astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria suit up before their spacewalk
Up in orbit
When we spend time outside the ISS, it may be for maintenance work or to attach something to the outside of the station for an experiment. Not easy in a space suit that’s like a big, stiff, steel balloon. You have to learn how to work with it. You can’t just reach into your pocket – it’s all very precise and slow. With the gloves, it’s like hitting your hands on a hard piece of granite all the time you’re working out there, so your hands take a bit of a beating. You’re tethered to the station throughout. Do I ever get scared I’m going to detach and just float off into space? Well, yes and no. When you go out of that door, you have a goal in mind, I know what I have to get done and I’m very focused on that and very controlled. But, yes, every now and then you realise what you’re doing and you go, ‘Oh my god, where am I?’ And you hold on a little tighter. Usually for me, that happens at the end of a walk.
Before each walk, you’re briefed about where you might encounter space debris or junk (bits of rocket engines and the like which are orbiting the Earth too). When you’re out there, you can see little craters on the ISS where it’s been hit by stuff, so yes it’s always a possibility – though a pretty small one. The ISS has survived for 12 years so far and we’re only out there for six to eight hours at a time. If things go wrong, our suits have 15 layers of protection to dissipate the energy of any impact and we have a supplementary oxygen system just in case, but it’s only around half an hour. So yeah, it’s always a thought. But it hasn’t stopped me clocking up 50 hours and 40 minutes of spacewalking – the longest for a female astronaut.
Space exploration is a male-dominated area but I’ve never been intimidated by that. A good leader is a good leader irrelevant of gender and most people who have got as far as the space programme realise that. Of course, you deal with different cultures from around the world and some have certain opinions about women in technical roles, but it’s never become an issue. When I’m talking to young girls about becoming an astronaut, I tell them, ‘The spaceship doesn’t know if you’re a woman or a man. You place those limitations on yourself. If you’re competent, professional and treat everybody with respect, they’re going to treat you with respect too.’
I don’t know if I’ll get to go back into space [Sunita is not on the rota which has been planned up to 2015]. I hope so. I want to float again. It’s what I miss most when I’m on Earth. There’s so much wasted space that you could be floating around in – to push off from one wall and find yourself at the other end of the room, flip around, or just steady yourself with a toe and lay out in mid-air, totally at peace. I’m grateful for every single moment of my space travels. I wish everyone had the chance to take a lap around the planet. They wouldn’t take it for granted if they did."