John Shattuck: Well, good afternoon. Good afternoon and welcome to the John F. Kennedy Library for this wonderful forum with a truly authentic American hero that I will introduce to you in just a moment. The forum, of course, is exploring the space frontier and on behalf of myself, John Shattuck, the CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and Tom Putnam who’s seated in the front row, the Director of the Library, we’re just thrilled to have you all here.
I want to thank the institutions that make our forums possible starting with our lead sponsor Bank of America. We’re also grateful to the Boston Foundation, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, the Corcoran Jennison Companies, and our media sponsors The Boston Globe, NECN, and WBUR, which broadcasts all our Kennedy Library forums on Sunday evenings at 8:00.
When John F. Kennedy became president in January 1961 the U.S. was losing a space race with the Soviet Union. The Soviets had done some pretty spectacular things. They had launched the first unmanned spaceship in orbit, the first to reach the moon, the first to put a satellite around Venus, all of this before he became president. And then in April, 1961, three months after he became president, they were the first to send a man into space around the world. Americans were frustrated and worried. How could this be happening? President Kennedy took up the challenge and on May 21, 1961 he put it to the American people in an address before a joint session of Congress. He said, “If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us the impact of this adventure on the minds of people everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take." He then issued his famous dramatic and far reaching challenge which you will hear in a moment. He said, “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Now, you notice I’ve been using ‘him’ all throughout this introduction. But you will see tonight the real revolution has occurred in space and no longer is that particular gender the exclusive one in reference to space travel. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration accomplished President Kennedy’s goal with dizzying speed and sent American astronauts orbiting the moon and descending to its surface by 1969.
In one of his last speeches President Kennedy told the story of an Irish writer, Frank O’Conner, who wrote how as a boy he and his friends would make their way across the countryside and when they came to an orchard or a wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue as they roamed, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall. And then they had no choice but to follow. The President then told his audience that, and I quote, “This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space and we have no choice but to follow it. We will climb this wall and we shall then explore the wonders on the other side.”
It’s our great privilege here at the Kennedy Library tonight to introduce someone who embodies the excitement and challenge of that great new frontier of space about which President Kennedy spoke. This year Sunita Williams has broken an incredible four world records for space travel, last winter and spring we all know. And we’re electrified by her flight as she was the flight engineer aboard the international space station launching her voyage on December 9, 2006 and returning to Earth on June 22, 2007. Extraordinary period of time. She set a world record by achieving the longest unbroken space flight by a female astronaut -- 195 days. Her second world record was the four space walks that she took -- again, the most by any female astronaut. Her third record was for the longest time spent outside a spaceship by a female astronaut -- 29 hours and 17 minutes. And these achievements, we all know, have brought great honor to her, to the U.S., and I would say to Needham, Massachusetts very much. Maybe there are some people from Needham, Massachusetts. [applause]
But I have to say beyond these three remarkable achievements, I’m also in awe of the fourth and final record set by Sunita this year: being the first astronaut, male or female, to run a 26 mile marathon in space while orbiting the Earth. Imagine that! Trying to go even faster than a spaceship. And this on your own! And this was not just any marathon. This was our marathon, the Boston Marathon. And she competed on April 16, the date of the marathon, by running on a treadmill aboard the international space station completing the race in a remarkably strong time of four hours and 24 minutes.
She graduated from Needham High School in 1983, the same year that Dr. Sally Ride became the first American female astronaut. She went on to attend the United States Naval Academy, where she received her commission as an ensign in the U.S. Navy in May, 1987. In July, 1989 she was designated a naval aviator and was later assigned to Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Eight in Norfolk, Virginia, making overseas deployments in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. She was then selected for the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, after which she began the rigorous training to become an astronaut.
Before introducing the moderator of this evening’s forum, I want to recognize Sunita’s mother who’s here with us in the audience, Bonnie, who lives in Falmouth, Massachusetts. And I wonder if you could perhaps stand so our audience could recognize you. [applause].
And we’re very grateful and privileged to have as tonight’s moderator another Boston star, our own Robin Young. Robin brings over 25 [applause] 25 years of award winning broadcast experience to her role as host of Public Radio International’s daily news magazine Here & Now -- which I know all of you listen to -- produced here at WBUR in Boston and heard on NPR stations across the country. Robin has been honored many times for her work, including five Emmy awards, the CableACE Award, and the George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in documentary filmmaking.
ROBIN YOUNG: But I have never ever done a marathon in space.
SHATTUCK: There you go. Well, we’ll hear from you. We’ll see. She’s been a correspondent for the Discovery Channel, CBS, ABC, and for several years she was a substitute host for NBC’s Today Show. So we’re delighted to have you with us here tonight and we thank you for moderating this special forum, Robin. We’re going to begin our forum this evening with a film clip from President Kennedy’s famous speech 45 years ago on September 12, 1962, when he outlined the great challenge to Americans of exploring the new frontier of space. And then following the words of President Kennedy, we’ll hear from Sunita who will tell us how she took up this great challenge, what it’s meant to her, and then she will have a conversation with Robin Young. So thank you all for coming and thank you both so much for being here.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: [film clip] There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind. And its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win. And the others too.
But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of withstanding heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food, and survival on an untried mission to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to Earth reentering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun, almost as hot as it is here today. And do all this and do it right and do it first before this decade is up, then we must be bold.
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory who was to die on Mount Everest was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, because it is there. Well, space is there. And we’re going to climb it. And the moon and the planets are there. And new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked. Thank you. [applause]
SUNITA WILLIAMS: Oh wow, that’s a pretty hard act to follow right there. Pretty incredible place to be and for all the right reasons I think that we’re here tonight. So thanks for everyone for coming to the JFK Library and for having interest in space. I mean I had a lot of interest in space when I was a kid just because I thought The Jetsons were cool and stuff like that, not necessarily because I had a big vision about what I really wanted to do when I grew up. But I tell you what. Having been in the space business now for nine years, I couldn’t think of a better place to work or a better job to have. It’s just incredible.
So there’s a couple things that we’re going to do tonight. One of them is I want to show a little video about what I call my summer vacation, and explain about that. You know, what’s nice about summer vacations, you go away and you don’t really have to have all those … If you go some place like maybe Cape Cod because it’s so nice and you don’t have to have that hustle and bustle at home. And that’s sort of what it was like on a space station. It was a little different hustle and bustle while we’re up there.
Just a little background on the space station: we’re still in the middle of constructing it. It’s about three quarters of the way done. This year is going to be really exciting because we’re going to be putting on other laboratories from our international partners, a Japanese module and a European module. Right now, we have primarily a Russian and a U.S. space station with a Canadian robotic arm to put on all these modules. And while I was up there -- you’ll see a little bit of this in the film so that’s why I want to give a little preview -- we did a little bit of changing. Our house went from a … I think we did a remodel like This Old House a little bit because we changed the electrical system from a temporary electrical system to a more permanent electrical system. And, likewise, once we were able to get both of those big solar rays out there working, we were able to turn over the heating and cooling system from a temporary heating and cooling system to a more permanent one. And so what all that boiled down to was those space walks.
And I have a couple words about records. I think the one I’m most proud of is the crazy one, the marathon. Of course, I think anyone who runs a marathon is a little bit crazy, but that’s okay. It’s a great adventure. I think it’s a little bit of a determination and something that you have to find in yourself to actually get through four hours plus of running, particularly on a treadmill. But there’s lots of folks here in Boston who did that in much worse weather than me. So I was very proud of them and thinking of them while I was on that treadmill and thinking, you know, I’ve just got to be able to finish this.
But the other records: I was waiting for the first taxi back to Earth. And that sort of determined how long I was going to be up there, and likewise with the space walks. Like I said, we were right in the middle of the construction of the space station and so, of course, we’re going to have a lot of space walks. And I think in the infamous words of Tony Dungy who -- if you’re aren’t familiar with who he is, he’s that coach of those Colts who didn’t let our Patriots go to the Super Bowl last year at all. He said something about being the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl. He said it was more of a matter of time and place, because there’s many people that had the qualifications before and will in the future. So I hope there’s a whole bunch of young girls out there who will kick my butt and take those records away from me.
So in the meantime, how about if we watch what it’s like to be living in space and how to get to space. So I’m starting with a rocket from Russia. This is Kazakhstan. It’s the Russian rocket, the Soyuz. This is the one that Yuri Gregarian launched on -- a couple modifications but essentially the same thing. It’s an Apollo type rocket. This is what it looks like inside. In there is the commander of Expedition XIV, Michael Lopez-Alegria, … (inaudible) Tyurin, a Russian cosmonaut, and a space tourist Anousheh Ansari from Iran. Actually, she’s American but she’s Iranian background. This is a view from that little spacecraft and that’s what it looks like from the space station. After all of the other parts, protective parts, come off. And that’s a view from the Soyuz as it’s getting ready to dock to the space station. There they are. The guy in the white is Michael. The guy in the blue was Thomas Ryder. He was a German astronaut, who I took the place of when I came up on the shuttle. The shuttle rides a little bit. The suits are a little bit different. They’re orange and, you know, they make you look nice and strong so we had to show that off a little bit. The spacecraft is in the vertical position like you’ve seen it, I’m sure, on all sorts of pictures just like that. So that’s how I was demonstrating how to get in.
This is liftoff. It was the first night launch in quite some time, because we were really worried about what the tiles looked like. See all the stuff coming off in the flame trench there? As its taking off, the external tank has foam all around it, sort of like a koozie, so when you liftoff some of those pieces lift off. That ride is a little bit bumpy. I don’t know if you saw in the corner -- I should have pointed out that that was the view of the inside of the cockpit. While you’re on the solid rocket boosters, which are those two white boosters on either side, it’s real bumpy. And there they are being jettisoned off right there. It’s bumpy because those boosters are like a cake mix material. There’s lots of air pockets in there so while they’re burning up it’s pretty bouncy. But then you just are riding on that big orange tank, which is fueling the three main engines. There you have about a million and a half pounds of thrust for the next six minutes which will take you up into orbit. So the whole ride is only eight and a half minutes. Somewhat impressive or unimpressive -- I’m not sure how you want to look at that.
That’s from the shuttle coming into the station. That’s the station with all ten of us there. So what does the inside of a space station look like? Because we were sort of clogging up the view there. This is typically where you live. We each have our own little space. We found after years of research that it’s nice that everybody has their own place where you can put your own stuff, your pictures of your dog maybe, pictures of your favorite baseball and football teams, or your husband or your family. A little cold in there, about 75 degrees. I wore my penguin jammies and I had to wear my little slippers.
This is a view of the lab. Right there I’m looking out the window checking the weather. Usually, it’s pretty nice every day. We’re way above the clouds so we don’t necessarily have to worry about it. I flew under the bike. That little brown thing right there was like a table in case anybody has a problem. I’ll talk about that a little bit later. We’re floating farther back going from the forward part of the space station back to the aft part. This pink part is the node. That was the first U.S. piece to go up. All these white bags around here, it’s like our pantry. That’s where we store all the stuff. So we have T-shirts, shorts, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and anything that is reusable. All consumable type thing is right there. So as we go further off you can sort of see the look and feel of the space station starts to change. And this is where it becomes the Russian part. So the node was the first U.S. part. This right here is called the functional cargo block which was the first Russian piece to go up. It actually launched by itself autonomously and we connected the node to it. We use this part right here.
This is a typical day. We use this part as our little hygiene station. You see water does a little bit interesting things. But brushing your teeth, shaving your face, those types of things are pretty similar, but you don’t have a sink. Just keep that in mind. So what you’re going to do with maybe your toothpaste or your whiskers, you have to be conscientious and careful of where all that stuff goes. Washing your hair. A lot of people asked about that. My hair actually has grown. It was a little bit shorter while I was up on orbit. For LA, that’s what we called him, his nickname, no big deal. For me it was a little bit of a bigger deal. I had to spend a little bit more time and probably wash my hair about twice a week. Surprisingly enough, when the guys came to pick me up they said that I didn’t stink and my hair wasn’t too greasy, so I was happy with that result. I’m not really sure if brushing your hair has anything to do with how you look but it seemed like one of those daily things that you wanted to do, just to sort of remind yourself that this is life. You’re up there for six and a half months. It’s not a camping trip. You have to sort of deal with all the rest of life.
And the rest of life: now, of course, we have to go to the real business end of the space station. We were flying aft and that’s the very aft part. And, of course, there is the toilet. So without a gravity assist, you need a little vacuum assist for number one. One size fits all, but you don’t have to be right close. You can sort of go far away and it sucks it in. But now you have to be sort of close for this, that’s number two. That one you don’t want anything going anything going anywhere else than it’s supposed to. So you try to aim pretty close. It could be fairly dangerous. There’s a story about getting mixed up between an Oreo cookie and other brown things floating around so we’ll talk about that later.
Now let’s talk about food. This is the food part. Those red and blue containers right there. Those are what are food comes in. They get shipped up. The Russian folks provide the red ones, we provide the blue ones. And it’s a pantry. You know, you say, “What do I want to eat?” It says breakfast, it says lunch, it says meats or vegetables. This happens to be scrambled eggs. Just add a little water to it and let it hang out for a little bit and it’s good later, about a half an hour later. That’s our water dispensing system. So that’s how when we have dehydrated food or drinks. That’s typically what our drink containers look like. That’s how we fill them up. But we also had food that comes in cans, a little bit looks like dog food. But you can get over that. Smells a little like dog food. But you can get over it. And also food that’s ready made. That was orange juice. This is a little breakfast meal here. We also have food that’s already ready made in a package. We have a water fountain.
The treadmill is actually in that general area too. So it was nice to just have the water fountain nearby. If you’re good … That’s Mikhail Tyurin by the way. He’s flown on the space station a couple of times. If you’re good, you can go for distance. LA was … This is his first flight for long duration and he wasn’t so good, so he had a long time keeping that in his mouth. But this is what food looks like when it’s already made. It doesn’t have to be hydrated or anything like that, and it just comes in those containers and then can get heated up in that little oven. Waffles? We didn’t have a waffle iron but those were already made and we just had to heat those up and we’re ready to go. The strawberries, those were dehydrated so we just had to hydrate them a little bit beforehand. And you can use your imagination and try to think about the best food you have and pretend the food up there is like the best food that your mom would ever make for you.
Every now and then we had a progress vehicle or whenever any other spacecraft came they brought fresh fruit and vegetables and it was awesome. You would just have to open the hatch to smell the air and you could smell the tomatoes. You could smell the apples. It was the best thing. I think what’s cool about that picture right there is the tomatoes and the pickles that are there, they just are sticking to that paper, just because of their surface tension because they’re just wet. So other things you’ve got to do, you know, of course, cut your hair. My hair was a little bit different than those guys, because they’re using a razor right there. Like a Flowbee it goes right into the vacuum cleaner. I had to sort of hold the vacuum cleaner up close to my head while they were doing that. But there’s no lack of fun on the space station. You can play as much as work. And you sort of get distracted with eating and playing. But then you have to get to work part of the day.
For every day that we’re up there we have to exercise. You have to exercise probably about an hour and a half. And when you think about it what happens is, you know, you’re walking around on Earth, your head is sitting on your spine, which is sitting on your hips and that’s putting a lot of pressure on your hips and on your feet. So that stimulates your bone density. In space that doesn’t happen. And so all of your bone density … Your body’s so smart, so adaptable, that it goes, “Hey, I don’t need bone there.” So it starts leeching it away. So to prevent that we have a resistant exercise equipment like this. We have the treadmill. And you saw the bike. And the bike is there. Sort of interesting fact. Your feet, actually, is known to shrink too because you don’t have to pump the blood from your feet up to your heart and it doesn’t have to work against gravity to do that. And so that’s why we had the bike so you can get a really good aerobic exercise while you’re out there. The treadmill is primarily for, like I was talking about, the hip bone mass and the feet bone mass.
But because we were using all that equipment up there and there’s all sorts of equipment that we’re using on a regular basis up there, we have to do our own maintenance. So this is me working on the treadmill after the marathon, actually. We had to change out some parts. But that’s typical. We’re our own plumbers, we’re our own electricians. This is actually a part that we’re going got use out on a space walk. We just go through and have to on a regular basis, have to be fixing all this type of equipment as well as installing new stuff. This right here happens to be an oxygen generation system, which is a simple chemistry equation. This is about as much as I know about chemistry. It’s H2O. You split it apart. It’s hydrogen and it’s oxygen. So that’s how we generate our own oxygen. We’re getting ready to have a crew of six. Right now we have three. but we’re getting ready to have a crew of six so we’re going to need more oxygen up there.
We also rewired the space station for a brand new computer system as we’re getting ready to add those laboratories I was talking about a little earlier. That’s the carbon dioxide removal system. This is the Russian oxygen generation system we’re using for only the crew of three right now. And we also did stuff in preparation for these new modules attaching. Right there is what we called the hatch. And what we were working on right here is a common berthing mechanism, which is the mechanism which we’ll be able to combine new modules once they get added on. So that’s all the stuff that we did inside.
And we did stuff outside as well. While I was up, there were five … wait, three, four … Well, during the increment we had five space walks. Two of them were Russian. This is the Russian space suit. Take a look at that backpack. It’s pretty long and you’ll see the American spacesuit in a little bit and it’s a little bit different. The interesting thing about the Russian space suit and that backpack, it’s like a door. You open it up and then you climb in the suit. Then you close the door behind you. All the parts in there are made to be changed out in space. In contrast, this is a U.S. solar ray which we were working on. You saw that little kink in it. That’s the U.S. suit. The back part’s a little shorter. It’s simply a life support system. It has the oxygen generation, the carbon dioxide and cooling in it, and also a backpack in case you fly away. And I’ll show you that in just a second here. But the suit’s a little bit different. It’s a little bit more modular. Three sizes of hard upper torso and then you can change the arms and legs sizes. I like this view and you’ll see another similar to that. That was from the helmet cam. But this is the backpack. In case you get disconnected from the space station, you just extend the little handle right there and then you can fly yourself back to the space station. Not something we need to practice on a regular basis. It would be a little scary, but the suits are getting used quite a bit. You know, there’s only about 18 suits in the whole U.S. inventory, and we have to do our own maintenance for them up there as well. And that’s something new that we did not plan on the U.S. side. The Russians planned that. That’s one of the reasons their suits are different.
So this again is a view from the helmet cams. I think it’s pretty cool. The guys on the ground were actually watching us. This is when we were doing some of the ammonia connection exchanges when we were getting ready for the heating and cooling switch over. But the guys on the ground were actually watching everything that we were doing from our view up in space down on the big screen there in mission control. And I think that’s pretty amazing technology. That’s the radiator being, which it looks like an accordion being closed up, and we were getting ready to move that part of the tress so we needed to close up those radiators.
I like this view. That’s the front of the station right there as the two of us were working on it. That all went up to our two space walks. Then we were on our last space walks, which were a little bit interesting. With the two solar rays on either side, the station flies symmetrically. You know, the station doesn’t have to fly that way. There’s no air up there. So you don’t have to fly it like an airplane. You can fly in whichever altitude you want. So before that it was sort of flying in a weird altitude. And because of that some of the equipment was getting pummeled with a lot of heat and a lot of radiation. We took a shroud off and then we were jettisoning it there because we didn’t need it anymore. Another part of the space station which is cool on the outside … There’s like a train track on the front and this is our little train going suni (powered). LA was just riding there as we were going from one side of the tress to the other. And that’s to allow us to carry big pieces of equipment back and forth in case we need to change something big. And sadly enough, that was our last view as we were getting ready to go into the hatch the last time.
So I mentioned something, quickly, about other vehicles coming up. Well, we had little guests. This was The Progress, a totally unmanned vehicle, except for inside the space station they can control it in case it has a problem. It’s like a store. That’s the one that had the apples and the tomatoes and smells great. And it just docks autonomously to the space station. And it’s filled with everything from food to experiments to clothes and we just manually have to float things out of there. Also water. This was actually coming from the space station. But just an idea of what water looks like. You know, it’s cool to actually hand things to people in space. You don’t have to walk over and hand anything. You can just float it over there even if it’s something really expensive. So water is just a typical example. Those are like 50 pound bags of water but of course it doesn’t weigh anything up there. Those progress vehicles also reboot. I’m essentially standing still in space and the space station is accelerating around me in the last picture, as the Progress vehicle was shooting its thrusters.
So, of course, we’re in a laboratory -- all this construction and maintenance and all that kind of stuff. We also did science while we were up there, squeaked in a little science. This is a radiation experiment where you see radiation flashes usually when you’re going to sleep. And we don’t know where on your brain that really is happening. It’s not necessarily with your eyes. And so LA’s head was all electroded up. I was just a little bored so I was just playing around with my yo-yo. We also did some capillary flow experiments up there. You think about that. That’s like water in a straw, or fluid in a straw, and how that works in space. You know, on Earth, rather, there’s gravity that’s pushing down. In space we don’t have that and so that has really neat implications, or applications, for future engines.
We had different centrifuges up there so we were able to grow plants in different gravity environments to sort of simulate how we might grow plants on the moon or on Mars. We’re not going to be able to carry all the food with us. This is an experiment out of MIT. It’s called spheres. And it’s really versatile. From the ground they can change the flight control laws of these guys and they can have them do neat little things, try docking, and all sorts of other things in micro gravity. So it’s a pretty versatile experiment. Also, this is a reaction test. Your reactions in space might change. Think about it. On Earth it’s easy to start moving but hard to stop. In space it’s the opposite. I’m sorry; I said that wrong. It’s hard to get moving but easy to stop on Earth, and in space it’s easy to get moving but then hard to stop. So anyway the bottom line is your reaction time might change.
We also took our own blood up there and urine samples. And we stored those in a little freezer that we had up there. They just came back to Earth on the last shuttle mission. We can sort of understand what happens to your body, to your blood, to your chemistry inside when you’re up there in microgravity. Because things don’t always work. I mean our bodies are so used to gravity that we process things internally using gravity. And so what really happens without gravity?
This next little section talks about, or is directed at how we communicate with folks back home. Because a lot of people say, “Hey, were you bored up there? Were you able to talk to anybody?” Well, we had both a phone and email. Unfortunately, no Internet. So we were able to contact our family and friends and also through a program called Net Meeting I was actually able to see my dog. We had a couple advisers while we were up there, told us how to maybe clean up the space station because it was a little messy. We enlisted a bunch of folks in the Persian Gulf. We talked to the Astros. You know, we’re based out of Houston, Texas where Johnson Space Center is. And so our second favorite team, of course, is the Astros. I missed my dog incredibly, so I got to talk to the Dog Whisperer and see some fuzzy characters. And got a little advice about food. Alton Brown, the food chemist, was giving us little hints about some of the food we ate. As well as we talked to somebody you guys might recognize. [Queen Elizabeth] Interesting night. We didn’t get to see her, though we talked to her and then the questions came up through another gentleman. And we talked to many schools while we were there which was really pretty rewarding. It was cool to actually hear what the kids in classes were thinking about. Well, that sort of wraps it up for Expedition XIV. And Expedition XIV and XV are handing over here. There’s lots of Navy traditions. We change the flag. We hand over the logbook. I was a handover item. I went from one expedition to the other. We put our patches on different parts of the space station, one in the airlock, another one on our wall of visiting vehicles to the space station. And on the left there is actually a spaceflight participant, Charles Simoney. And we have the bell to announce the arrival or departure of vehicles. And this is the Expedition XIV getting into the Soyuz and getting ready to leave. The Princess Bride was a favorite movie so we always said, “Have fun storming the castle.”
That little bottom dot right there was where the three of them are, Expedition XIV. The other two dots right there that are burning up as they enter the atmosphere are the other parts of the Soyuz. So as LA would say, “Make sure you get into the right part of the Soyuz.” And this is what’s left. It’s just a capsule, just like the Apollo days with a parachute. And lands on the steps in Kazakhstan. A little dusty out there as well as they have soft landing jets. The three of them are in there. They have to get to the right attitude to pull them out. So a little bit of rolling. I can imagine it was sort of painful. But Misha and LA and Charles came out there in Russia and ended up … What they do is they end up staying there for some of their physical rehabilitation and then come back to the U.S.
And so while they were doing all their physical rehab, we were getting ready for the next, like I said, taxi to earth which was this one, Space Shuttle Atlantis. We were all happy to see it. We do lots of photographs of it because of the Columbia accident just to check the tiles and make sure everything is okay for the reentry. That was the crew. And that’s mission control and some of our flight directors have a good sense of humor. I think they were ready to get us home.
And I have to finish the video with what the space station looks right now. And I tell you what, it’s incredible. The golden solar rays are just spectacular to see, and it’s neat to think that three people are living up there right now. So those are all the mission patches of the flights that were in this movie while I was up there. Thank you. [applause]
YOUNG: Go ahead, that was a lot of talking. I want to say, first of all, I’m just in awe. In thinking of coming here to talk to Suni -- I talked to Garrison Keillor this afternoon, and I’m sort of going through my schedule. I’m talking to Suni Williams tonight. I’m very excited about it … astronaut, yeah, yeah. And then when we saw each other and we hugged, and I suddenly had this, “Oh, my gosh! I touched a person who was in space.” It’s really profound. Do you find that people have that reaction to you? You’ve been somewhere! You carry particles and your cells are rearranged because you’ve been in this place.
WILLIAMS: I hope not too many cells have been rearranged. I don’t know. But I don’t think I’ve seen that reaction or felt that reaction. I think I have tried. I mean, there’re folks here who have known me since I was a little kid, so I think they know better for one thing. And I think I try to portray that to anybody that I meet that there’s nothing so special. Though I do have a couple pieces of jewelry that I carry with me all the time that have been in space and I think those are pretty special.
YOUNG: Is that the watch you have on?
WILLIAMS: The watch and this bracelet right here.
YOUNG: The bracelet that was in space.
YOUNG: I said this morning on WBUR that you were going to be here. I said she’s going to wear her astronaut suit because there was a miscommunication and someone told me that. Well, it would be impossible. We’d have to cart you out here. How much does that weigh?
WILLIAMS: Well, there’s a couple suits you saw, right? The orange suit in the beginning, you can lift that. I wasn’t super strong before I left. That’s probably only about 50 pounds with the parachute on in the back and the oxygen bottles. But the white suite, the space walking suit, can range anywhere between three and 900 pounds. It’s pretty heavy. But that doesn’t matter because we put it on up in space.
YOUNG: Right, right. You talked about the impact on the body of being in space. How do you feel now? And you’ve been back about, what, four months?
WILLIAMS: Three months now. I feel pretty good. Everybody is a little bit different, so everybody’s body reacts a little bit different. I think I did enough physical exercise up there that my bones and my muscles felt good. Though I have to say the first time I felt gravity was when I took my helmet off and I was feeling like, “Whoa, this is really heavy.” And the first time I stood up, I could visibly see my legs shaking a little bit. But they got used to it. I mean, they reacted pretty quickly and I think that was the result of the exercise we did up there. Some of the little bit longer lasting effects for me were neural vestibular which is essentially, you know, simply put, the fluid in your inner ear. It’s used to the effects of one G as you’re sitting here or as you’re on Earth. But then up in space, of course, that fluid starts to float around a little bit. And I’ll tell you the tomato soup that I ate beforehand came up nice and smoothly when I got up there, because I was a little bit nauseous as that adjustment was beginning to take place. And, likewise, on the flip side, coming home, you know, with the effect of gravity again on that fluid I felt pretty sick for the first two days. Every time I turned my head it felt pretty nauseous. But you feel when you come home, hour by hour you’re getting better. I mean, you can’t escape gravity. And so every moment that you’re here on Earth, you feel better and better and you start to get used to it again.
YOUNG: How does it feel to be in space? Obviously, you’re floating. But how else does it feel? Do you feel speed? There was one moment where you felt the other vehicle thrust. But how does it feel?
WILLIAMS: It’s very peaceful. I mean, I would equate it to being on an airplane. You know, when you look out the window, even though you’re going 500 miles per hour, it just feels pretty smooth, unless you’re flying through turbulence, which we don’t have any of up there. We’re way above the cloud tops, so it’s always usually a pretty smooth ride unless the vehicle’s turning or anything like that. So it’s very peaceful, particularly when you look out the window.
YOUNG: I’m almost disappointed to hear that, you know. Because I sometimes find myself on an airplane and I’m thinking, “I wish I felt this was more miraculous.” Because I knew one time in my life I thought it was. And now I don’t feel it. Is there a moment when you’re in space where you … Maybe it’s like when we see the Grand Canyon, and it’s just sometimes you have some weird vertigo when you’re at something like the Grand Canyon because it’s so immense. Is there a time when you’re in space when there’s something that happens that you really feel where you are?
WILLIAMS: Oh yeah. I mean, though it’s very smooth, we have big cameras where we’re usually always trying to take pictures of the Earth and trying to get that one shot of Cape Cod and, whoop, it’s gone. That’s sort of annoying. You know, it’s because you’re going 17,500 miles an hour. You see 16 sunrises and sunsets. So as you’re trying to get that other picture of some place and all of a sudden, you know, “Oh shoot, it’s night time already over there.” And, you know, those types of things really dawn on you that you’re going pretty darn fast.
YOUNG: Do you ever have a moment -- and maybe it’s just because we’re projecting, I’m projecting that I would have these moments every second. Do any of the astronauts ever have a moment where you need to be calmed down a little bit? Where the enormity of what you’re doing maybe hits one of you? Or is it just work?
WILLIAMS: Well, I would say it’s usually just work. I would say probably 95% of the time it feels like just … I shouldn’t say ‘just’ because it’s cool work. Every day you get up, you’re like, “Ooh, what are we going to do today?” So it’s fun work. But it doesn’t feel like it’s scary or anything like that. But I think every now and then it dawns on you that you’re living in a little can in space where the tempers are pretty violent and you’re in the vacuum of space. We were in an interesting orbit at one point in time where the left side of the spacecraft was always in the sunlight. The right side was seeing the sunrise and sunsets but it was during the summer time frame and we were just following the orbit track. And you could tell the left side was heating up, because you would hear little creaks. I’m sure the spacecraft is rated for this, but you would hear little creaks and stuff like that and we opened one of those hatches which I showed as one of the common berthing mechanisms where we’re going to add another piece. And it’s black just like the front of the space station. And so you could feel that heat just emanating in there. And so you sort of think to yourself, “I hope this is all going to work.”
And, you know, when you’re out on a space walk we’ve practiced it so much that when you open the hatch and you go out you feel like, “Okay, this is just normal. I’m in the pool at Johnson Space Center. I know what I’m doing.” But every now and then when there’s a moment to stop. You might have asked a question to the ground or you asked a question to each other and you stopped working because you weren’t sure of what you were doing, and you looked out and the Earth is just zipping by you. It makes you stop and just go, “Wow, this is pretty amazing. And I hope my space suit works.” Every time I came in I gave my space suit a big hug.
YOUNG: I guess while you’re up there, you know, do you have discussions? Especially when you’re with the Russians? I’m just wondering because I know when I was coming here some people said to me, “Ask her about faith.” You know, you’re up there in what people would call the heavens. You know, are there conversations about things like that with your fellow cosmonauts or even internally with yourself?
WILLIAMS: Oh yeah. I mean, we have a typical day up there. Like I was mentioning, it’s six and a half months. So you try to keep things as normal as possible. We wake up in the morning. You do all your normal morning stuff. You have a little conference and then you go to work. Everyone’s doing their whole thing all day. And then at night time, everyone sort of gathers together and has dinner and that’s when you have some of those reflective conversations about what are we doing up here, and why are we here and why actually are we on Earth. And looking down at Earth. And talking to each other about some of the amazing things we’ve seen. Misha Tyurin’s very -- I don’t want to say artistic. It’s always fun to take pictures of places you know. Because you’re like, “Oh that’s where I grew up.” Or that’s this, that’s this. And he started taking pictures of just things that he thought were weird on Earth. You know, just like weird craters, weird colors, and things that if you took those pictures back to an audience and said, “Where was this?” They would say it’s a different planet. They wouldn’t even recognize it as our planet. So those moments like that when you stop and start reflecting about this ball that we’re living on, then you start really wondering, you know, what’s it all about.
YOUNG: Would you conclude … I mean, when we were all kids the thing was … I mean, everyone went through this. Where does it end, you know? What’s the end of the universe? And then what’s beyond that?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think the best way to answer that question is sort of like, I think when kids ask me, “Do you think there’s aliens out there? Did you see any?” And I haven’t seen any, I’ll have to tell you. First a disclaimer. I haven’t seen any aliens. But I couldn’t imagine there isn’t something out there that’s living besides us. You look at all those stars out there. When you’re up in space, you’re above the atmosphere of the Earth so it’s like the darkest place that you could find at night when you can see millions and millions and millions of stars. And they don’t twinkle, because you’re above the atmosphere. They’re just bright spots of light. And you’ve got to think that that’s what our sun looks like. So around all those little stars out there are there planets? And on those planets does anything have a makeup like we do here that could support some type of life? I don’t mean to be focusing on we’re small, small, small, small, small, but there’s got to be something else out there, and I think we’re very lucky and privileged to have our planet that can sustain our life. And you start thinking about what else is out there. I don’t know, it makes you feel pretty special and pretty small I think all in one.
YOUNG: You’re awfully casual when you were showing us the film and you were saying, “Oh, look at the debris coming off the shuttle,” when it was going up. And, of course, there were horrendous problems posed by some of the tiles that were coming off. You mentioned that you hold one of your records by default. You were waiting for someone to come and get you. We were waiting down here too, especially here in Massachusetts. What was that like? Did you ever think maybe I don’t get down? Do you even allow that to cross your mind? Do you know that, by the way, a lot of programs were delivering this news that you’re setting all these records because, you know, there’s trouble getting the shuttle up there? And they would play, what’s the song? Major Tom. And I kept thinking, I hope she’s not hearing this, because it’s the song, you know, the astronaut who’s stranded in space.
WILLIAMS: I like David Bowie, but I wouldn’t want that to describe my life I suppose. Actually, you know, six and a half months up there went by so quick that I felt like I could have stayed longer, no problem. Initially, I was supposed to come back on the next shuttle, the STS-118. But we moved up to STS-117, because 117 … the whole schedule sort of shifted. And so there was a lot of debate whether or not I was going to stay up until the 118, which would have left me up there about 260 days. And one of the things about being in space is you get a dose of radiation. They don’t really know exactly how much you get until you come home. Because everybody wears a dosimeter and there’s dosimeters throughout the cabin as well. So somewhere around 180 days is what we normally keep people up in space and that’s proven to be fine. So when we start getting up to, you know, the 200 to 300 days we’re not exactly sure what those effects are, what’s happening. And so we try not to keep people up in space that long. So that was sort of the discussion. So that’s why I was sort of facetiously saying the next ride home which got me back home.
YOUNG: Everyone’s going to get their chance to ask about different aspects of Suni’s experience, but I’m just going to move to one quickly that has been all the news. So bear with me. We, of course, know about your colleague astronaut Lisa Nowak, who went on the cross country trip to seek retribution against what she perceived as a romantic rival. And after that happened NASA promised to monitor the mental health of astronauts more, and they came out with a study in which they found, in addition to talking about mental health issues, that in fact there had been incidents of astronauts flying within a timeframe that they’re not supposed to after having been drunk. So my question: are you drunk? No. [laughter]
WILLIAMS: I didn’t stumble today did I? I don’t think so. What’s in there?
YOUNG: At the time some of the people in the program expressed concern. They said they had expressed concern -- doctors had -- that they knew that these astronauts had been drunk within the 12 hour limit and were still allowed to fly. Maybe it’s something you can’t talk about or maybe you can and forcefully discount it. But are there things like this that are going on in the program that, you know, safety questions, mental health questions that people like you have to deal with?
WILLIAMS: Little difficult question to answer, because I really don’t have a good answer for it except for the fact that I’ve gone through one launch count from first hand experience. And it would be really difficult to do what the press has, or what was displayed as maybe people have been drinking within a timeframe which was close to launch. Just because everything is down to the wire. You know, the launch count starts a number of days beforehand, where the vehicle’s being programmed. And parallel to that is the astronauts: we go into quarantine days beforehand and you have things that you’re going to do right up until the time that you launch, in particular the day of launch. You know, you have a breakfast at a certain time. You have a press conference at a certain time. You have to put on your space suit when you’re going to the vehicle and all that type of stuff. So from my experience and the experience of my crewmates, I can’t really imagine that being a realistic concern.
YOUNG: I wondered too if it was in some ways being a little unfair to at least the core astronauts. Because I started thinking when that report came out that there was a time when we first started flying in space that people who were chosen to be astronauts were out of their minds. I mean, they were expected to be risk takers and the real sort of cowboys of outer space. They were test pilots and they always lived on the edge. And there was always this winking nod that there was this kind of lifestyle and that’s why they went up in these cans, you know, to outer space. And that now suddenly, you know, that kind of -- however you characterize it -- is being called into question. Has their been sort of a shift in …
WILLIAMS: Oh yeah. I think absolutely. I mean, half of the astronaut core comes from a test pilot background. Of course, at this moment in time we have test pilots and jet pilots who are flying the space shuttle. So there is a brotherhood in that system. But half of the astronauts are also scientists and doctors and physicists, a veterinarian. We’ve got a whole range of folks. We have some educators who are now astronauts as well. And also our role is a little bit different. The spacecraft that we’re going on have flown a number of times. I’m not going to say they’re not test aircraft or test spacecraft, but they’ve flown a number of times and our mission is not just to launch and come back to Earth, but our mission is to get out there and understand what it is to live and work in microgravity and how we can use this experience, this laboratory, to build the next generation of spacecraft. So I think the focus of what we’re doing is a little bit different from the group of astronauts in the very beginning. I’m not saying against them. My gosh, they were the bravest folks on the planet to lock themselves, sort of strap themselves into a can and say, “Light the candle,” as the first couple had said. That’s pretty incredible. But our focus has changed about what we’re doing. And when we leave the planet and go back to the moon or when we go on to Mars, there is a little attitude of that you’re on the cutting edge. But you keep everything in perspective. I mean, I think everybody who launches on a space shuttle … I can’t imagine … I went through this a couple days beforehand of, you know, you sort of want your life in order, your friends and family in order, your dog at the right place and everything all in order. Because you know, there’s a chance that you might not be coming back. But you go through that and then you move on. We’re highly trained for what we’re doing and people take it very seriously.
YOUNG: You know, you mentioned that wanting your life in order and you and your husband have a dog that you love. And we’ve heard that. And I probably should ask this of a male astronaut as well. But do you think if you had children, do you think you would go up? Or do you think it’s harder for the astronauts who do?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, a six-year-old boy asked me the other day would I go to Mars if I knew it was a one way trip. So I sort of feel like this is a very similar question. And I asked him, “Would you?” I’m not sure he was ready for me to ask him that. But I said, “It’s your generation that might be doing that, so you better start thinking about that.” I think, really, if you felt what you were doing, if I felt what I was doing was for a good purpose that was going to help folks on Earth and humanity, and what we’re trying to accomplish with nations working together, then, yeah, I think it would be worth it. If I didn’t feel that way, then maybe I would say no.
YOUNG: You know, and again, a man would have the same consideration. Leaving children behind might be tough.
YOUNG: By the way, I’m so sorry. The sun is setting right behind you.
WILLIAMS: Right in your eyes. Can I block you?
YOUNG: No, no. That’s okay. And it’s beautiful. Beautiful views here. You talk about how this mission, you feel that it is so important. You know this debate where many Americans are wondering if it is. Wondering if the money should be better spent somewhere else. And the shuttle program itself is scheduled to end in 2010. Debate about how it proceeds from there while the space station is there. What would you say to Americans who say billions of dollars … It’s wonderful, we love seeing it, and it’s fun, but really what is it doing?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think one of the things that I mentioned right in the beginning of the film was, you know, all these parts are engineered all over the world. They’re not put together before they go to space. This is the first time these pieces have come together. And we are opening up our companies, our engineering models, ideas to be able to do that with each other, like countries that we had not been so friendly with in the past. And I think that’s pretty incredible, first of all, as an engineering project, and secondly as a peaceful diplomatic project that we’re all working on together. So I think that is really first and foremost, above all the benefits of the international space station.
And then secondly, why would we want to go back to the moon? Why do we want to go on to Mars? Well, there’re lots of things that we can learn from doing that about our own planet, about our own civilization. And what happens to planets that don’t have plate tectonics, for example, like Mars? And could our planet turn into a planet like that? Going back to the moon … You know, the guys who went to the moon initially in Apollo, again, what an amazing brave group of gentleman who were able to do that and taught us a whole lot about space and exploration. But they were there for a short amount of time. If we’re going to go to Mars to understand some of these issues that potentially our planet can have, we need to figure out how we’re going to do that successfully. The moon is a logical stepping stone. We can build a space station, an outpost there where we can try out all these things that we want to do when we go to Mars, so we’ll be successful when we do it. So there’re all sorts of benefits I think from the political, to the engineering, to the scientific, to how humans look at each other. I wish everybody had the opportunity. I wish we had a little bit more commercialized space travel, so folks can get up and look down at the planet. Get up to space, look down at the planet. And one thing I’ve talked about before is looking at the countries all around, those countries are all bordered by things that we write on a piece of paper. Those lines in between countries are all something in our imaginations. That’s not what it really looks like from space. Those countries are all one. I had a hard time deciphering some of the countries in Europe because, you know, “Where’s the map with the little lines that are drawn on there, you know? What am I taking a picture of?” I was happy to find some good lakes and stuff like that. But, honestly, I think that folks would be a lot nicer to each other if everybody had that view.
YOUNG: We’re going to hear if there’re people who know Suni when she was a kid in Needham. But growing up in Needham -- I mean, you loved Bobby Orr, you loved Larry Bird. Did you love an astronaut? Was there something that appealed to you? When did it happen for you?
WILLIAMS: No, I don’t … Well, you know, I mentioned quickly I grew up in the sixties. We were four years old or so when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and watching on the black and white TV. Some of you young people don’t realize that there were black and white TVs, and there were no remote controls at one point. We had to get up and actually turn the channel. But we were watching that. And, you know, I was little at the time but we all crowded down in the basement to watch. And it was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” But I didn’t … Who’s going to be an astronaut? You’ve got to be super smart to be an astronaut. And that surely wasn’t me. I was an okay student.
YOUNG: Now, wait a minute. We were hoping that you were going to say that you excelled in math and science.
WILLIAMS: Well, I did excel in math and science.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, and particularly later. But I really wasn’t … You know, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved animals. And I think what kids usually focus on and what I think I did at the time is something that you know and you love and you go, “Okay, I want to be a veterinarian because I love dogs.” And not really seeing the rest of the world that’s out there and the opportunities that are there. My choices when I went to college as it boiled down -- I mentioned this before so if some of you have heard this before I’m sorry to be redundant -- were the Naval Academy and Columbia. And I had really long hair at the time. I was really nervous about cutting my hair. At 17 years old, that was a big deal for me. And so my thought was, “Do I cut my hair or do I go live in New York City? No way, New York City’s way too scary. I’d rather go to the military and cut my hair.” So I didn’t want to be a Yankees fan. So I went to the Naval Academy. When I was there I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I learned a lot about math and science and teamwork and leadership and followership from the great experience that I had there, but still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a diver. It seemed like it would go hand in hand with my swimming background. I was like, “Oh, I’m really comfortable in the water.” Again, I wasn’t at the top of my class, I was in the middle. And we, through our service selection, figure out what we’re going to do based on what our class standing is. And so I didn’t get the diving billet. There was only one woman diving billet at the time. And I thought, “Well, I have 20/20 vision. Maybe I’ll fly. I’ve never flown an airplane before. What the heck.” So I said, “Let’s go to flight school.” So I did and then, you know, I wanted to fly jets. And at the time Top Gun came out and everyone’s like, “Jets, jets, cool.” There were only one or two billets there for women at the time. This has all gotten a lot better, by the way, for everybody out there. And so I put that down, didn’t get that. I got helicopters. I’m like, “Okay, helicopters. Cool, I guess. I don’t know what this is all about.” So I tried it out and I had really a wonderful time flying helicopters. I mean, I think it’s probably the second best view of the Earth when you’re zipping around really fast right over. And so I still didn’t really think about being an astronaut. Or had it in the back of my mind, I’ll say, but thinking again, “I’m a helicopter pilot. There’s just no way I would ever become an astronaut.” I knew other jet pilots had become astronauts. And I went to test pilot school. And while we were there, we went to Johnson Space Center. All the jet pilots, of course, are sitting in the front row, you know, waiting with baited breath, you know, learning how to fill out their application to be astronauts. And us laid back helicopter pilots are in the back row just going, “Okay, when is this brief going to get over.” And John Young gave the brief, and he mentioned that he had to learn -- he went to the moon twice in case you guys didn’t remember and also flew the first space shuttle -- and he mentioned that he had to learn how to fly helicopters to land the Lunar Lander. And then I went, hey. There’s a job for me. You know, why not.
YOUNG: Why do you think NASA picked you? Because there were so many candidates, why do you think you …
WILLIAMS: Oh, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think what they’re looking for … I mean, typically the job description is people who are pretty, I guess, not necessarily outdoorsy, but I would say little bit adventurous. Not overly adventurous, because I think one of our big mottos or things that we do … We have a lot of redundancy to decrease risk. So I think that they’re looking for people who do maybe slightly extraordinary things with some calculated risk involved and have come out successfully, and people who understand what it’s like to potentially go on a long deployment. I’m a Navy guy so I’d been on a couple six month deployments, as well as my husband. So I think those are characteristics that they’re looking at for someone to be an explorer. There’re a lot of studies out there about the folks that have gone to the South Pole and what made their expedition successful. So I think some of those characteristics are what they’re looking for.
YOUNG: And we know Needham, Massachusetts is so proud of you. You tossed out the baseball at the game last night.
WILLIAMS: Made it to home plate. [applause]
YOUNG: Yep, right. Of course the Yankees won, but …
WILLIAMS: I know.
YOUNG: But are you aware of how proud India is of you?
WILLIAMS: I will be soon.
YOUNG: Are you going there?
WILLIAMS: I’m going, leaving actually on Wednesday. We’ll be going to my father’s home state and then a couple astronautic conferences are happening while I’ll be over there. So I’ll really looking forward to that. That should be pretty interesting.
YOUNG: It’s quite something.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, actually I’ll have to tell you a cool story. I got an email from a friend of mine who I used to swim with at the Naval Academy. Her husband is in Iraq. And the barbers in the Green Zone are Indian contractors. And they stopped what they were doing to watch Atlantis land. And he said, “What are you guys doing? You know, I have to get my haircut.” It’s like, I’m a timeline here. He’s like, “Well, you know, Suni Williams is landing on the shuttle. This isn’t the Green Zone.” So that’s cool. I think I’m getting the message that people are pretty psyched about it.
YOUNG: Well, let’s let the people who are here ask some questions of you in the time that we have. And I’m not quite sure … do we just stand up and holler? Oh, there’s a microphone there. Tell you what, why don’t you guys, there’re two mics, one on each side. Why don’t you guys start forming little lines in front of each microphone, and we’ll go side to side. There’s a young man here. Suni didn’t get to wear her outfit because we’d have to wheel her in. Didn’t someone show up in an astronaut’s outfit? Is there a young man here? Where are you? Where are you? It’s a little girl? Fantastic. Hold her up. Come on down. While the lines are being formed, I want to see the outfit. She’s shy.
WILLIAMS: That’s great.
YOUNG: How cool. Well, she’s now hiding in the back. We’ll meet her later. Are you aware of young girls, in particular?
WILLIAMS: I think I’m also getting the feeling -- I hate being … Somebody asked me the other day about being a role model, and I had to take a step back and … Oh, I guess maybe I need to think about this a little bit. And I take it pretty seriously. I think the things that we’re doing are things that anybody, any young girl can do. Sort of like the borders things. I think any limitations that you have in your mind between what you can do and what some little boy can do or what some guy can do, is just a border that you put in your mind. And so I’m trying to relay that to kids. The helicopters I flew didn’t know whether or not I was a boy or a girl. The spacesuit didn’t know whether or not I was a girl or a boy, so why should that be a limitation. So I hope I am translating that type of message to all the young women out there. Like I said, they’ve got to come up and beat my record. I’m getting old so we need some people to take my place in the space program, so let’s go.
YOUNG: We have a question for Suni.
AUDIENCE: Welcome, Suni. Welcome home.
WILLIAMS: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Are you still in the Navy? And are most of the astronauts members of some branch of the service?
WILLIAMS: I’m still in the Navy. Actually, just went over 20 years. So most of the folks who have a military background stay in their military field until some point when they can retire and then maybe they’ll switch over to government service. But really about half of the astronauts are military and half are civilian or government service workers now.
YOUNG: And a question over here.
AUDIENCE: What do you keep in the chest over here on the suit?
WILLIAMS: What did I keep in this part of the spacesuit right in front?
WILLIAMS: Well, that’s all our controls. While you’re out there this little space suit is actually a spacecraft. It has all your oxygen in it, all your carbon dioxide removal, it has heating and cooling, it has a battery in there. It also has information about backup oxygen in case your primary oxygen went away. So all of those pieces of information are displayed on what we call a display control module right here. So we have a little screen and we can toggle through everything that … how our suit is working.
YOUNG: Oh, we have the young girl coming up to show us her outfit.
WILLIAMS: Come on over here.
WILLIAMS: Wow. [applause]
YOUNG: Can you tell us your name? We have a model for our radio listeners. Can you tell us your name, just a little bit, into the microphone? Do you mind telling us your name? Maybe that’s top secret. Is that top secret?
WILLIAMS: Are you the commander?
YOUNG: Okay. Thank you so much. You can go right on there, Isabel with her commander suit on. Again, for our radio listeners, she had her full orange suit on. And she’s come back. Did you want to say something to Suni?
ISABEL: And Aidan.
YOUNG: And Aidan?
ISABEL: And Isabel.
YOUNG: And Isabel. Thank you very much. All right, one more …
ISABEL: And Mella and Isabel’s dad and Isabel’s mom and Aidan’s dad.
YOUNG: Alrighty. Thank you so much. They’ve all come here today. Okay.
ISABEL: No. Aidan and Isabel. [referring to her imaginary friends]
YOUNG: Thank you. Oh, there’s mom. Bye. And prior to that we had a young person at the microphone who I didn’t even see, he’s so short. And he was holding up a photograph of you with your spacesuit asking about the front of your spacesuit. So that’s for our listeners at home. Well, I’m telling you, I think you just saw the future of the space program right there.
WILLIAMS: All right, let’s go.
YOUNG: Were you finished with your question? Do you have more of a question? Okay, thank you. And now, over here. We have a question on this side.
AUDIENCE: Hi, I don’t think my question is quite that sophisticated. Actually, two questions. Did you get to use both American and Russian spacesuits in your space walks? And also what kind of tracking do they do for orbital debris when you’re outside? I know that I’ve read reports that the shuttle had a gouge windshield, I believe, on one flight and they said that … I believe that they thought it was actually a paint chip from a satellite. But it actually had put a pretty good groove in the windshield. They had to replace it. So what kind of protection do you have and how worried are you about that?
WILLIAMS: Okay. Just first to talk about the spacesuit question. I only went out in a U.S. spacesuit. My Russian counterparts, as well as the commander of the space station, had gone out and done a spacewalk in the Russian suit and also the U.S. suit. So I only have firsthand knowledge on the U.S. suit. However, we’re trained in both suits before we go just in case anything happens. Maybe there’s something, some systemic problem in the spacesuits and say we can’t use any of the U.S. suits. Then we’re ready to go out and do the tasks in the Russian suits, and likewise from the Russians, same thing with them. They can go and use our suits. So we’re all trained in both suits. But I had never done a space walk in the Russian suit.
And for protection or what type of tracking, well, you know, there’s folks on the ground … I can’t really talk to the specific incident that you mentioned because I don’t really have any knowledge about that. I need to go back and look that up. But they’re tracking anything on the ground that’s like a softball size. And, really, for the space station we are in an orbit that has an inclination above the equator. We can’t change that inclination that we’re flying; however, we can change our altitude by the way we boost. We can change our altitude by the way we turn to potentially help and prevent us from hitting anything. So a little micrometeorites that we’re not going to be able to see -- and we have micrometeorites protection on both the suits and the space station itself. We’ve seen some evidence that every now and then there’s some damage here and there. But that spacecraft is made to withstand that kind of stuff. Like I said, I’m not familiar with the incident you mentioned, so I don’t really have any details on that one.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
YOUNG: On this side.
AUDIENCE: Can you tell us the circumstance of your record breaking space walk? Whether it was planned to go that long and how you dealt with it?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, you know, when we’re practicing or when we’re training in the pool for space walks, they are pretty much timed essentially to the minute with a little bit of slop time in there. And you try to get done early. You know, it’s just like at home, you know, you want to get all your yard work done early so you can go in and enjoy the game. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. We had an idea that these might last a little bit long, because we were dealing with ammonia and ammonia connections. And the quick disconnect connections, we had known that there might be some problems with that and they might leak. Now the ammonia that we used for the radiators is lethal if it comes inside and so if you get any of that ammonia on your suit you have to wait a certain amount of time, what they call “bake out.” First you try to scrape it off and then you have to be outside for a certain amount of time so you don’t bring that ammonia into that closed environment because then it would be really lethal and dangerous. And so that’s one of the reasons our space walks lasted long. That was the group that was during the increment.
My first space walk lasted long, because we had that problem with that solar -- I don’t know if you remember that part in the video. There was a gold piece that sort of had that kink in it. It’s like a map, you know, it’s sort of flimsy like that. And it already has bends in it and you try to fold it. Sometimes it doesn’t work. And we had finished all of our tasks pretty early for our nominal tasks that they said, “Hey, why don’t you go up there and try to shake that thing. Take the map and do like this a little bit and see if it might loosen itself up.” That was an unplanned task. And they really wanted to have cameras on it. So they wanted it to be in the daytime. So we had about 40 minutes of nighttime where we couldn’t do anything, actually. We were just waiting until daytime to try to do it again. So that was one of the reasons that spacewalk lasted long. But that was really cool because those northern lights were acting up at that point in time. So this green cool magnetic thing was like bouncing over the Earth while we were out there. So I enjoyed the view for that time.
YOUNG: Next question.
AUDIENCE: Hi, there is a popular movie out right now, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, called Sunshine.
WILLIAMS: Haven’t seen it.
AUDIENCE: Haven’t seen it? Oh no. Well, the reason I ask is it’s about a mission that goes awry in a weirdly parallel way to the mission … I mean, it really recollects the mission that you were on. And I guess the question that I have is about when they fix the solar panels on it, and you can’t answer it because you didn’t see it. But thank you for showing the footage of fixing the solar panels.
YOUNG: What was the question? Just try us.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah.
AUDIENCE: Well, I guess I assumed that you would have seen it to see if they got it right or not. But I guess it was just like how accurate was it. I mean, it was to me the climax of the movie when they got outside the spaceship and had to go fix something. Mostly because I was thinking of you guys.
AUDIENCE: I mean, that it happened.
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, each one of our spacewalks, one of the passed down items … People ask, “What do you do now?” And one of the big things we do is we talk to the other astronauts who are getting up to continue the construction about some of the lessons learned, of course, that we had. And one of the lessons learned about spacewalks that is resounding is something’s going to happen that you didn’t expect. And be ready for that. And be ready to adapt to your plan. You know, just like the ammonia, we sort of expected it but we weren’t really sure. Just like the solar rays we weren’t really sure how that was going to work. We knew there might be some problems. We may or not have thought of all of the contingencies of folks on the ground. We have an army of folks. You know it’s not only us astronauts. We’re just the lucky ones who get to go execute. But there’re thousands of people on the ground and all over the world that are working on these problems with us. And you know, sometimes we didn’t anticipate how things are going to work in microgravity, and you’re just going to have to go out there and try something. And that’s happened on all of the last couple of missions that we’ve had. We’ve had a couple other little problems with the shuttle surface itself. We’ve had problems with solar rays retraction. We’ve had some problems with radiators. We’ve had little problems here and there. I mean, this space station is a test bed. Like I said, we’ve never done this before. We’ve never constructed and changed parts like a tinker toy in outer space, and so we’re learning a whole lot out there.
YOUNG: And one on this side as well.
AUDIENCE: Is it possible to actually go up to Earth and touch it.
WILLIAMS: Wait, say it one more time.
YOUNG: That was a dual question for our radio listeners from two young women who split it up. Is it possible … Try it again.
AUDIENCE: Is it possible to actually go up to Earth and touch it?
WILLIAMS: To Earth?
YOUNG: You mean if you’re hanging out of the space station? Like putting your hand out?
WILLIAMS: You’ve got to come home. You’ve got to come home to touch it, because it’s pretty far away. But it’s an interesting question because when I was out there I was … I wrote a journal every week and it’s on the NASA website if you’re interested just to see what was going on in my mind when I was out there. And it took until probably the end, about six months time, when we were orbiting and I’m taking pictures, I’m looking out the window. And I was thinking, reflecting back on the Apollo folks and thinking about the ones who went to the moon and orbited for the first couple of times. And they were looking down on it and I felt like, “Wouldn’t you want to go down there and touch it?” It was seriously the feeling I got after orbiting around the Earth for six months. I was like, you know, you just want to be part of it. You want to touch it. So I think if I was one of those folks that were going to go back to the moon or on to Mars. I think I would want to get down there and really land and touch it. But coming back into any atmosphere is a little tricky. You know, particularly here on Earth where we have air, it’s like you are putting your hand through water, right. There’s a little resistance. Well, when you’re coming back into the Earth’s atmosphere at such high speeds, air is like that. It’s friction. And that friction is what heats up the bottom of the spacecraft. And so you’re going to have to go through a little trauma to go back and touch the Earth.
YOUNG: Scariest part. That’s a fantastic question, though. Because that’s how I feel about the Grand Canyon. While I’m standing on one side I can just touch the other side. But that’s enormity. You can’t. One more question?
AUDIENCE: Yeah. How many times have you gone up to space?
WILLIAMS: Actually this is my first time and only time. It was a little bit of a doozy. I got it all in one package. I got to do a bunch of space walks as well as live on the space stations.
AUDIENCE: Were you scared before you went up?
WILLIAMS: No, actually I don’t think I was scared. Like, I was mentioning, I think I wanted to make sure everything was in order. I think the most scary part was going out to the spacecraft right before we were getting ready to launch. We had been out there to launch pad before, and lots of people are working on it so they’re still putting the payload into the payload bay and closing up everything, making sure everything’s tightened down, everything’s in the right place. And so we roamed around there before checking out our stuff that we’re going to work on. But when we went out to the launch pad that night -- because it was a nighttime launch -- the xenon lights were lighting the thing up. You couldn’t see anywhere around it because they were so bright. There’re only a couple other folks out there, called the close out crew, and the vehicle is fueled, which means it’s filled up with cryogenic hydrogenic and oxygenic. And it’s just breathing and moaning and hissing. And there’re only a couple people out there and you just look up at this enormity and just go, “Oh my God, I’m going to be sitting on the top of that thing.” And that was a little scary.
But once you climb in, you know, our training is really pretty thorough, and you feel like you are back in a simulation. You’re like, “Oh okay, I know.” And then you have a couple of hours because we check the integrity of the door and make sure the hatch is all sealed. And we do some communication checks with Kennedy and also in Houston, because we’ll be talking to them before long. And then when there’s a little time in there -- and folks have asked me, “What were you thinking about in there?” -- I’m like, “Oh, we were telling jokes and just relaxing a little bit.” Because you’re on as soon as those light and you get propelled right off the Earth you better be ready to do what you need to do. And so we were just relaxing right beforehand.
YOUNG: I’d be checking the integrity of the door. I’d be out the door! Another question on this side.
AUDIENCE: How does it feel to sleep in space? Because you’re in this small confined area. And how does it feel? Is it comfortable dis-comfortable?
YOUNG: Did you get claustrophobic? Is that what you mean? Did you get a little claustrophobic looking at the film?
AUDIENCE: Well, not really. Just wondering how does it feel to sleep in space.
WILLIAMS: It’s a great question because my thought beforehand was, “Oh, this is going to be like sleeping on a hammock.” It’ll be nice and comfortable. You don’t have to turn over because your shoulder hurts or something like that. That was true. However, it was very difficult to get used to sleeping in space. You know, I’m 40-ish and my brain has registered that I put my head on a pillow, I lay down on a bed, and that feels comfortable to me. So to just sort of have your head floating around like a bobble head. It’s like, “This is weird.” And I ended up having a little bit of a neck cramp, because I was straining my neck to hold it still unconsciously. Likewise, my stomach to hold myself. And it took really about a month to be able to get adapted and relax in space. And, you know, you’re in a sleeping bag and then you’re in that space. So you’re not like floating all over the place. But it took a little while to get used to all of that.
YOUNG: Would they ever put you in a head harness?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, we have those. Actually, we have a little Velcro strap that can go across your head. And some people have recommended sleeping with a bungee across them. I guess maybe this is the adventurous side in me. I said I want to adapt. I want to see if I can do this and, lo and behold, you can.
YOUNG: A couple more questions. Do you have another one, young lady?
YOUNG: Okay, let’s have another from the young woman behind you.
AUDIENCE: What was your first emotion when you found out you were first going into space? And how long did you have to prepare for your journey?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think the first time I had like an, “Oh, my God, I might be going into space,” was when I got selected to be an astronaut. And that was in 1998. And I was pretty psyched about it. I was actually on a ship at the time. I was what we call ship’s company, not flying airplanes at the time, just as one of the ship drivers there. And it’s really infrequent that folks that are -- we called it on the waterfront, ships that are moored in Norfolk, Virginia -- have folks from that background become astronauts. It’s usually test pilots. And so it usually happens at the test squadrons, and it’s sort of not necessarily normal but it’s a little bit more expected. And I think what was really cool about being on the ship was it was so different for all the folks that were there. They were like, “No way. What are you kidding me?” And with that reaction it sort of dawned on me. “Oh my God, I’m actually going to go to space one day.” And that feeling just sort of emanated and stayed with me for a long time. But then it started to dissipate because it took a little while.
And there was a bunch of different things that were reasons why I didn’t go to space right away. Of course, the Columbia accident. We had hired a lot of people thinking we were going to have seven people on the space station a little while ago. So it just took a while for the line to get going and I think that feeling of like, “Oh my God, I’m going to space,” just went to, “I don’t believe it’s going to happen.” And it didn’t … And I felt that way again after we had a launch scrub the first night, the first launch attempt on the 7th. And that’s when I was scared. So when we went out to the vehicle on the 9th I sort of had that same feeling like, “Ah, it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen.” And I think the second time aside from when I get selected to be an astronaut that I went, “Oh my God I’m really going to space,” was when the launch pad was lit. And then we were going, and there was no turning back. We were hurling and hollering like you’re on a roller coast. Hoo-hoo let’s go. So I think it was a long waiting to get there. That was I think more of the feeling.
YOUNG: I’m just going to ask, if Amy’s here, should we maybe just take the people in line that we have now? Right. So if you’re in line now, that’s going to be the end of our questions. And by the way, I’ve been doing this, too. A lot of us have been saying Soony. It’s Suny.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, Suni.
YOUNG: Because of your sunny demeanor, actually.
WILLIAMS: It’s okay.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, hi. My name is Sola. I’m from the John D. O’Brien School. And I actually have some questions. I was just wondering what’s like the total cost of just one space walk?
YOUNG: What’s the cost of one space walk?
WILLIAMS: I don’t have that number. I know the suits are in the millions and we only have a limited number of suits for that very reason. But I’m sure it’s pretty expensive.
YOUNG: So just the suit alone -- millions and millions?
SOLA: My second question is what is your most memorable event?
WILLIAMS: I think the most memorable event -- the space walks were cool, absolutely without a doubt. And you know, going out, we’d call it out the door the first time, was pretty special and pretty incredible to see the planet however I wanted when I turned my head. That was really cool. But I think the most memorable and special point was when we switched over crews. I was out there with another American and a Russian until I was up there just with two other Russians. And I think what was cool about that was I sort of got that feeling of responsibility like, “Oh my God, I better know what I’m doing.” And also I had probably the most experience at that time of anybody on the space station. And you stop and think about what we’re doing and you sort of reflect back about what humans are doing up in space, and I felt pretty proud of that moment.
YOUNG: Thank you. Back to this side.
AUDIENCE: Were you able to see the Earth rotate or revolve or even wobble a little around the sun or on its axis?
WILLIAMS: Well not … -- How do I answer this question? Not as you’re describing it. I mean, we were aware of it turning and rotating, of course, because every time we would fly … You know, we were flying a little bit too fast to see that happening. But the second time we’d come around an orbit, we wouldn’t be at the same place over the Earth. So if you think about that -- so you know it’s spinning beneath you because if it wasn’t spinning, you’d be coming over the same place each time. And we would see on a map or computer program that we use called World Map or Sigma, two of them, we’d see how much we would move which meant how much the Earth would turn. But I didn’t necessarily see any wobble while I was out there.
YOUNG: That’s so cool, though. You had no point of reference ever up there.
YOUNG: One more over here.
AUDIENCE: Hi, my name is Julia Remasa. I’m also a student at the O’Brien and I was just wondering some academic classes that one could take if they wanted to be an astronaut?
WILLIAMS: What types of classes and stuff that you want to take? Yeah. I think science and math are absolutely up there on the level. Public speaking maybe not so much. I’ve been working on it, but I’m not that good at it. So science and math are definitely up there. But, you know, I think I quickly mentioned that the astronaut core has a whole range of folks, you know, not only physicists, chemists, and scientists, but also military folks, pilots, we have a SEAL in the audience, we have a deep sea diver, we have a veterinarian, we have doctors, we have teachers. But everybody has some math and science background in their fields. And just because what we’re doing is filled with math and science. So you have to have that little bit there. And when I’m talking to kids about … you know, sort of like I alluded to with my life, it sort of took a couple, a circuitous path there. You know, I think the best advice to kids who are thinking about being an astronaut is find something that you like and then you will be good at it obviously because you like it. And then find out how that translates to being an astronaut. And I’ll bet you’ll find a path right there.
REMASA: Okay, thank you.
YOUNG: I think we have one last question. Oh, two, sorry. I’m sorry.
AUDIEN CE: I wanted to know, did you always have your parents support in your career decisions?
YOUNG: Did we? Did I? Do you mind answering … Because we were talking a little bit about it. And if you wouldn’t mind, Suni’s mom going to one of the microphones just telling us, were you concerned about her career decisions as she was making them in a helicopter and then, you know, as an astronaut? Would you mind just taking a second at the mic? We have Mom here so we might as well.
SUNITA’S MOTHER: Actually, I really, I was more concerned with her flying helicopters and test planes then going into space. I know a lot of people at NASA, and they’re very excellent concerned people about their astronauts. And, you know, their space program, they don’t want anything going wrong with it. You know, Suni was a person who always was adventurous and wanted to get out and do something, and I never held her back. I said, “Go for it. Do it.”
YOUNG: There’s your answer.
WILLIAMS: I have to say one thing about my parents, particularly my mother. When I was 17 and I was getting ready to cut my hair and go off to military school and not be a Yankees fan, I was mowing the lawn one morning and it happened to be in April and I said, “You know, I think this is probably going to be the last time I’m going to get to run the Boston Marathon before I go away to the military, and I don’t know when I’m going to be back to be able to do that. And so will you drive me out to Hopkinton?” And she said, “Sure, let’s go.” And so I think that’s a reflection of the support that I got from my parents. If I ever wanted to try something she was like, “Here, put a dime in your shoe, give me a call if you’re tired. Let’s go.” So a little “go get it.” So I appreciate my parents a whole lot.
YOUNG: And one very last question.
AUDIENCE: Did you miss space more than Earth?
WILLIAMS: Oh, that’s a great question. You know what, I have to say I really do miss space a lot. I think the drive which keeps me back here are the people. What keeps me here and wanting to be here are the people. But being in space is absolutely fun and cool, and I am happy that I actually have the ability to have dreams about being in space since I was there. Every time I walk into a room like this and I look at the ceiling, I look how high it is and I think how cool it would be to jump off the floor and fly up there and fly back down and push off the front and go there. Your perspective on life makes you want every now and then when you see pretty cool places like that to do stuff like that. So I really do miss, I really, really miss being in space. I already told you about the views that you have that are just spectacular. But I think it’s the people that keep you here.
YOUNG: Well, I quit. First of all, your questions, all of you, were spectacular. And you’re going to get to ask more of them because Suni will be here with us. But Sunita
Williams, Needham’s own. Thank you so much.