Sunita Williams achievement in space exploration

Mohammad Hanief

In a historic achievement, Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams has become the first woman to pilot a new spacecraft on its inaugural crewed test flight to space. Williams, 58, launched aboard Boeing’s Starliner capsule on June 5 this year, alongside NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The mission, dubbed Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT), is a crucial step in certifying the starliner for regular crewed flights to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. If successful, it will make starliner the second private spacecraft after SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to transport astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory.
For Williams, a veteran of two previous space shuttle missions totaling 322 days in orbit, this flight marks another pioneering milestone in her trailblazing career. She previously set records for most spacewalks (7) and spacewalk time (50 hours, 40 minutes) by a woman during her expeditions aboard the ISS in 2006-2007 and 2012.
The Starliner capsule will attempt to dock with the ISS around 26 hours after liftoff, carrying Williams, Wilmore and over 500 pounds of cargo for the orbiting outpost. The two astronauts are scheduled to spend about a week aboard the station, conducting tests and validating Starliner’s systems before returning to Earth for a parachute-assisted landing in the western United States.
Williams’ achievement is particularly poignant given her Indian-Slovenian heritage. Born to an Indian-American father from Gujarat and a Slovenian-American mother, she has celebrated her multicultural roots by carrying Indian and Slovenian items during her previous spaceflights.
As Williams and Wilmore continue operations aboard the ISS, their pioneering mission aboard Starliner marks a significant step in expanding humanity’s access to space through commercial partnerships. It also cements Williams’ legacy as one of the most accomplished women in the history of space exploration.
Researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are collaborating on a study of a ‘superbug’, a multidrug-resistant pathogen, discovered on the International Space Station (ISS). This finding has raised ‘health concerns’ for astronauts, with Sunita Williams currently on board the ISS. The research on this pathogen could also have significant applications on Earth.
Enterobacter bugandensis, a common nosocomial pathogen, has been detected on surfaces within the ISS. “In a new scientific paper funded by an Ames Space Biology grant, Principal Investigator Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory strains of the bacterial species Enterobacter bugandensis isolated from the International Space Station (ISS) were studied,” NASA said in its release on April 16 this year.
Astronauts face unique health challenges in space due to their altered immune conditions and limited access to medical facilities. The researchers said comprehending the microbial landscape aboard the ISS is crucial to evaluating its impact on astronaut well-being.
Indian-origin Sunita Williams, 58, embarked on her third space journey on Thursday, June 6, alongside Wilmore, aged 61. This historic event marked the first voyage aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). Williams serves as the pilot for the flight test, while Wilmore assumes the mission commander role. Astronauts face unique health challenges in space due to their altered immune conditions and limited access to medical facilities. The researchers said comprehending the microbial landscape aboard the ISS is crucial to evaluating its impact on astronaut well-being. Another study cited by NASA regarding E. bugandensis highlighted the significance of the International Space Station (ISS) as a symbol of human achievement in space exploration.
Despite the space station’s controlled environment characterised by microgravity, heightened Carbon dioxide levels, and increased solar radiation, microorganisms thrive in a distinctive niche.
These microbial residents play a vital role in impacting the health and welfare of astronauts aboard. Enterobacter bugandensis, commonly found in clinical samples such as the human gastrointestinal tract, is reported to possess pathogenic characteristics, potentially causing various infections. In 2014, both Boeing and SpaceX received funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew programme to carry astronauts to the ISS after the US space agency retired its Space Shuttle Program in 2011. Boeing received over USD 4 billion in US federal funds to develop the Starliner, while SpaceX received about USD 2.6 billion. Since its first launch on May 30, 2020, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has performed 12 crewed missions to the ISS. Before June 05 launch, the last attempt to launch Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft was scrubbed on Saturday, less than four minutes before blastoff from the Kennedy Space Centre, due to a ground system computer triggering an automatic abort command that shut down the launch sequence. On May 6, NASA, Boeing, and ULA “scrubbed” the launch due to a “suspect oxygen relief valve on the Atlas V rocket’s Centaur second stage.”Sunita, from Needham, Massachusetts, earned a physical science degree from the US Naval Academy and a master’s in engineering management from the Florida Institute of Technology. Her first spaceflight was Expedition 14/15 (from December 2006 to June 2007), launching on space shuttle Discovery’s STS-116 mission to reach the International Space Station, according to NASA. While onboard, Sunita established a world record for women at the time with four spacewalks. She concluded her tour of duty by returning to Earth with shuttle Atlantis’ STS-117 flight, landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on June 22, 2007.
Selected as an astronaut by NASA in June 1998, Sunita has spent a total of 322 days in space on two missions and accumulated 50 hours and 40 minutes of cumulative EVA time on seven spacewalks. She worked with Roscosmos on its contribution to the space station and with the first Expedition crew. Meanwhile, 61-year-old Barry Wilmore has logged 178 days in space and has spent 25 hours and 36 minutes on four spacewalks.
NASA has announced that astronaut Sunita Williams will return to Earth from the International Space Station on June 22. She arrived at the ISS on June 5, her fourth visit to space, with Butch Wilmore aboard the Boeing-designed Starliner spacecraft. The journey back to Earth is expected to take around 6 hours, with potential landing sites in Utah, New Mexico, or backup locations.

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