"My space expedition changed my perspective towards people"

“My space expedition has changed my perspective towards people. Looking down at the Earth, we could not see borders or people with different nationalities. It was then that realisation dawned on us that all of us are a group of human beings and citizens of the universe,” said NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, during an event at the National Science Centre here on Monday morning.

Sharing details about her space explorations with school students, Ms. Williams said her fingernails and hair grew during her journey in space.

“As the spinal cord increases it makes you taller. However, after landing on the Earth you shrink a bit. What was worrisome was that some of the wrinkles, which had disappeared there, came back. During our journey, we did weight lifting, squats and dead lifts to regenerate the bone density. Luckily, my muscle mass and bone density did not alter. Our workout was so rigorous. We followed new diets. After two weeks, we were back to normal.”

Pointing out that astronauts were needed from different academic backgrounds, the Indian American astronaut said astronauts have to be electricians, plumbers and IT guys.

“We need an astronaut with medical background. In my space journey I felt vulnerable because we did not have anyone with medical background. When we make that big trip to Mars we would need a doctor on board.”

Noting that her parents were her role models, Ms. Williams said her father, who came from Gujarat and had studied medical science in the country, used to tell her about what happened during the Partition and the work done by Mahatma Gandhi.

“When he came to the U.S. he met my mother. Both of them instilled in me a love for science and adventure. Since my mother was a Catholic she talked about the work undertaken by Mother Teresa. I would always ask myself whether my mom would be proud of me.”

Proud of her Indian heritage, Ms. Williams said she carried with her a figurine of Ganesha and a copy of Bhagwad Gita to space.

During her freewheeling interaction with school children, the astronaut said she had seen lots of ups and downs in life.

“There have been failures too. Failures teach you a lot… I had a lot of questions on the way. I wanted to become a veterinarian. My father was a doctor. In college, I could not get first subjects of my choice. A career in navy was recommended. Later, when I heard a lecture I realised that I had the same qualifications which were needed to become an astronaut.”

Describing the first Indian American in space, the late Kalpana Chawla, as a great friend, Sunita said she was in Houston when she learnt about the terrible tragedy. “It was Saturday morning when we came to know that Columbia had disintegrated. We were struck with disbelief. Everyone was so shocked and we asked ourselves why we had not cross-checked all the details. But the overriding fact was that we were missing a great friend. We capitalised on their journey and have made advancement in space travel,” said Ms. Williams, who holds a record for the longest space flight by a woman.

Later, during an interaction with the media, when The Hindu asked her whether she was frightened before undertaking her first journey into space, she said: “My journey was in 2006, a couple of years after the disintegration of the space shuttle in which Kalpana Chawla travelled. We can prevent a lot of things but still space journey is a calculated risk. But we are working for the right cause.”

The astronaut said today’s generation was more open-minded and technology-savvy than she was at that age. “I wish I was 20 years younger and started my career all over again. I am envious of them.”

An avid traveller, she would be exploring the east coast of the country during her ongoing visit. “I have not travelled down South. I would also like to trek in the Himalayas.”

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