Sunita Williams: Space Pioneer

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by Stephanie Bacon

The Jerome P. Keuper Distinguished Alumni Award continues illustrating the prominence of Florida Institute of Technology in the 2015 award winner, Sunita Williams

The true measure of a university’s greatness can be found in the achievements of its alumni. Florida Institute of Technology has established a worldwide reputation for developing leaders and innovators across diverse fields, from academia to private industry to government. In that stratum of “the best of the best,” FIT alumni have gained their unique distinction through successes in their professions, service to the university and contribution to their communities.

The Jerome P. Keuper Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes an alumnus whose career accomplishments honor the university’s legacy of excellence. This year’s recipient is Sunita L. Williams ’95 M.S. who will be presented with the award at the Homecoming Awards Gala on Nov. 7.

Williams, who earned a master’s degree in engineering management from the Patuxent site, again makes history by being named one of the first astronauts in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. This group of four astronauts will fly the next generation of space vehicles. It is the successor to the 30-year-long space shuttle program. The ambitious plan is to land the first humans on Mars by 2030 on privately built spacecraft.

“Space exploration makes us think outside the box. It makes us stretch our imaginations even farther. Technology is nothing without imagination and spaceflight imagination in the next generation is going to go really far. That is their challenge though, and we are just trying to give them the baby steps to get there,” said Williams in preparation for Mars.

“These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail, a trail that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.

This isn’t the first history in the making for Williams. She holds the world record for the most spacewalk time—50 hours, 40 minutes—by a female astronaut. Williams, who spent 322 days in space on two shuttle missions was referred by Bolden as a “space pioneer.”sunita-williams-florida-tech

Williams, a U.S. Navy captain, was born in Euclid, Ohio, but considers Needham, Massachusetts, her hometown. Growing up just outside of Boston and riding her bicycle frequently into the city, it comes as no surprise she is a Boston Red Sox fan. Williams, an avid exerciser, swam on a competitive swim team in the Harvard pool during her teen years with her older brother and sister. In fact, her brother, a naval academy graduate as well, convinced her to attend the Naval Academy. In addition to other sport activities, Williams swam for the Naval Academy team.

She received her commission in the Navy in May 1987 and became a helicopter pilot and was later selected as a test pilot. Williams logged more than 3,000 flight hours in more than 30 different aircraft.

While attending Test Pilot school, her class toured the Johnson Space Center and she met astronaut John Young who spoke about flying to the moon. The concept of vertical landings intrigued Williams and inspired her to think about becoming an astronaut. To improve her chances for astronaut selection, Williams earned her advanced degree from Florida Tech in 1995. NASA chose Williams for the astronaut program in 1998. Williams, known as Sunny around the Johnson Space Center, in December 2006, launched into space for the first time on board the shuttle Discovery as part of the 14th expedition to the International Space Station (ISS). Williams served as the flight engineer for both the 14th and 15th expeditions. While there, she set world records both for space walks and participation in sports. Over the course of four space walks, spending 29 hours and 17 minutes outside of the station, Williams set the new record for females. Williams also circled Earth almost three times as she participated in the Boston Marathon from space. She ran about six miles per hour on the ISS station treadmill with an official completion time of four hours, 23 minutes and 10 seconds—the first time an entrant has competed in the race from orbit.

On July 12, 2012, Williams traveled to the ISS again, this time on a Russian Soyuz vehicle. She served as the flight engineer for the 32nd expedition and the commander of 33rd. World records again would be recorded in her name. During Expedition 33, on Sept. 16, 2013, Williams participated in the first triathlon in space simultaneously with athletes in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon held in Southern California.

Her training begins now for the Commercial Crew Program. Williams expects to return to space in 2017.

Williams’ courageous service and trailblazer actions exemplify the ideals of the Jerome P. Keuper Distinguished Alumni award and make her a model recipient.

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