Sunita Williams: Astronaut, Marathon Runner in Space

As if spending months in space wasn't challenging enough, one astronaut is taking the time to compete in marathons and triathlons while aloft. Sunita Williams, who will be taking command of the International Space Station in September 2012, has put a new twist on staying in shape while off-planet. Let's take a look at this amazing astronaut.

Early life

Born on September 19, 1965, in Euclid, Ohio, Sunita Pandya Krishna was the youngest of three children. With a father who was a neuroscientist and a mother who worked as an X-ray technician, Sunita grew up with sketches of brains around the house and aspired to be a veterinarian.

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Expedition 32 flight engineer, is pictured in the Cupola of the International Space Station during rendezvous operations with the unpiloted Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-3). This image was taken July 27, 2012. (Image credit: NASA)

Speaking of her father immigrating from India with his brothers, Williams said, "Working their way through university and coming over to America, without much infrastructure — I think about leaving my home for another country — that seems more daring than the things I've done."

Her life took a profound turn when her older brother attended the U.S. Naval Academy and suggested she consider it, as she lived an active life. She decided to follow his lead, and in 1987, graduated from the academy with a Bachelor of Science in Physical Science.

Sunita became a helicopter pilot, and served in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf in support of Desert Shield. In 1993, she graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, and went on to perform test flights in a variety of military helicopters. In 1995, she completed her master's degree in Engineering Management. She was stationed on the USS Saipan when she was selected for the astronaut program.

"Don't let anyone tell you, 'You can't do it.' That's the biggest thing — I had one squad commander [tell me]: 'Being an astronaut is for jet pilots, not for helicopter pilots.' If you know that's what you want, you've just got to go for it. You do the best you can do at what you're doing, and find out what you need to do to get in this field."

Sunita has logged over 3,000 flight hours in more than 30 different aircraft. She is married to Michael Williams.

Blast off

Williams applied for the astronaut program twice, having attained her master's degree after the first attempt. She started the program in August 1998 and, after a period of training and evaluation she traveled to Moscow to work with the Russian Space Agency on their contribution to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2002, she spent nine days underwater in the Aquarius habitat off the coast of Florida as part of the NEEMO2 exploration mission.

"Enjoy what you're doing, you'll naturally do well at it, and if [the opportunity to be an astronaut] comes up, it's just a bonus."

On Dec. 9, 2006, Williams launched into space for the first time on board the shuttle Discovery as part of the 14th expedition to the ISS. She remained in space until April 26, 2007. While there, she set a world record for females over the course of four space walks, spending 29 hours and 17 minutes outside of the station. (The record is now held by Peggy Whitson, who has spent almost 40 hours outside of a vehicle over the course of six space walks.) Over the course of her 195 days in space, Williams also set a new record for females.

Williams is the second woman of Indian descent to go into space. Kalpana Chawla made two shuttle flights, the first aboard Columbia in 1997. Her second flight, also aboard Columbia, ended in tragedy when the shuttle broke up during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.

While in space, Williams participated in the Boston Marathon, clocking the 26.2-mile (42-kilometer) race on the ISS' treadmill in 4 hours, 23 minutes, 10 seconds — the first time an entrant has competed in the race from orbit. She also cut her long, flowing hair while in orbit to donate to Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to children suffering long-term hair loss due to medical issues.

On July 14, 2012, Williams traveled to the International Space Station again, where she will remain until January 2013. In September 2012, Williams will become the second woman to assume command of the ISS for Expedition 33. But despite the pressures inherent with command, she intends to participate in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon that same month, swimming, biking, and running from the vastness of space.

— Nola Taylor Redd

(Quotations from an interview with Niralia Magazine online, Issue 20, April 2008.)

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Nola Taylor Tillman
Contributing Writer

Nola Taylor Tillman is a contributing writer for She loves all things space and astronomy-related, and enjoys the opportunity to learn more. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English and Astrophysics from Agnes Scott college and served as an intern at Sky & Telescope magazine. In her free time, she homeschools her four children. Follow her on Twitter at @NolaTRedd