UAE’s choice of female astronaut is big step, says NASA veteran Sunita Williams at Sharjah International Book Fair


Sharjah: The UAE’s election of a woman astronaut is a big step for the entire region, said veteran NASA astronaut Sunita Williams.

Williams, who had set several records, including one for the longest space flight by an American woman and another for the longest cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut, spoke to Gulf News ahead of her first session at the 42nd Fair Sharjah Book International. (SIBF).

Sunita Williams with students at the book fair
Image credit: supplied

Having a qualified astronaut like Nora Al Matrooshi ready to go to space is a major milestone, said Williams, who has logged a total of 322 days in space, making her the second-longest female American space mission. duration in history.

“I think the simple fact of choosing her is a great step because then girls in this country and in the region will be able to see themselves following in her footsteps and doing it.”

She said she provides an inspiring role model for both girls and boys, not only in her home country but also in the region at large. When children, especially girls, see someone like Nora accomplishing great feats in space exploration, they may imagine themselves following in her footsteps.

Training UAE astronauts

“I think Nora has an NBL career coming up and then I will help work with her in the near future, maybe by the end of November.”

NBL is NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory where astronauts are trained especially for their future spacewalks.

Williams shared his positive experiences with UAE astronauts Hazzaa Al Mansoori and Sultan Al Neyadi, whom he met during his training in Russia. She praised his dedication and expressed her joy at seeing them join the astronaut community.

He recalled that Al Mansoori told him that he had seen his video on how to enter the ISS. “It was humbling to hear that.”

He said the four UAE astronauts, including Mohammed Al Mulla, are “integrated into all aspects of what our astronaut corps is doing. That’s why we meet them all the time, as friends and colleagues, in addition to helping them train.”

“Recently, Hazzaa and I did some preparatory studies on how to transfer cargo to the moon and also did some underwater diving in California to mimic what we are going to do on the moon. “I have had excellent interactions with all four of them and I look forward to Nora Al Matrooshi and Mohammed Al Mulla flying.”

In her second session at SIBF on Thursday night, Williams will be accompanied by Al Mansoori.

women in space

Williams noted that having men and women in space programs brings diverse perspectives, making the team more balanced and effective. “Some people joke that the boys keep the station (the International Space Station) a little cleaner when the women are there,” she said, laughing.

When asked about the main challenges facing female astronauts in space, Williams acknowledged that female astronauts often do not have the opportunity to share their experiences with other women in space.

“It’s like you don’t have your sister to talk to…Sometimes you have to call back and call your sister or your mother to have that conversation. So I think for me that was the only thing I missed. I haven’t been there with another woman, but I hope we change that. “There are more and more women in the Astronaut Corps from countries other than the United States, which is really amazing.”

He also noted physical challenges, such as differences in size and strength, particularly during spacewalks. Historically, spacesuits favored larger individuals, but efforts are being made to accommodate a broader range of body sizes, especially for female astronauts, she noted.

Main contributions

Despite all the physical challenges, Williams participated in numerous scientific experiments, ran a marathon aboard the ISS, and spent 50 hours and 40 minutes spacewalking. At one point, she held the record for the most time spent by a woman in Extravehicular Activity.

However, he believes his most significant contribution is serving as a role model for young people with big dreams and instilling the belief that anyone can be part of something bigger than themselves.

Williams said she is passionate about sharing her story with children to inspire them to pursue their dreams. She noted that her journey was full of opportunities, including failures that provided valuable learning experiences.

Reflecting on his memorable moments in space, he expressed how the responsibility of representing his country in space was deeper than he had initially anticipated. Williams recalled a pivotal moment when her American counterpart walked out on her, leaving her with two Russian colleagues. She felt the weight of representing her nation and humanity in space, which left a lasting impression on her.

Current goal

He is currently preparing for his next mission with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. Williams, who has been working on the Starliner spacecraft for the past eight years, revealed that the mission is expected to take off next year.

As for his current preparations, Williams said he is actively involved in the testing and development of the new spacecraft, launch system and human landing system. He expressed his enthusiasm for contributing to the future of space exploration.

Williams is at SIBF to talk about the book ‘Sunita Williams: A Star in Space’, which chronicles her life up to her two space expeditions that ended in 2012.

When asked about the possibility of publishing another book about her, Williams expressed interest in sharing stories about the space and related experiences if there is a compelling reason to do so. She mentioned a book her mother wrote from the perspective of her dog during her space mission as a unique and fun approach to storytelling.

inspiring children

“Whatever you want to do in life, first get to the starting line, remember what you learned in kindergarten and stop to look at the foliage,” the famous astronaut of Indian origin told schoolchildren in the United Arab Emirates. United about the lessons he learned from his trip to space in his session at SIBF.

“I didn’t realize that being a diver and helicopter pilot would prepare me to go to space,” the inspiring American astronaut told the packed room.

An athlete and swimmer since she was little, the astronaut confessed that although she did not know what to do after high school, on the advice of her brother she entered the Naval Academy where she learned to be a diver and pilot.


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