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Friday, December 08, 2006

Second Indian origin girl in space

International News : SpaceHouston, May 4 Nasa has picked Indian-American Sunita Williams nee Pandya as part of the 14th international space station crew, Indian-origin astronaut Sunita Williams has been appointed along with two others as part of the replacement crew for the six-month-long International Space Station Expedition to be carried out in September this year.

Sunita's selection caps the prospects, which began in 2003 when she was selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency as a backup crew member for one of its missions to the space station orbiting about 240 miles above Earth.

She is the second astronaut of Indian origin after Kalpana Chawla, whose space odyssey had a tragic end on February 1, 2003, when space shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas during re-entry. The US-born Sunita Williams will serve as a flight engineer for the six-month mission, Nasa announced on Tuesday.

Her colleagues on the expedition will be Nasa astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, who will be the commander and the station science officer, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, who will serve as flight engineer and Soyuz commander.

Nasa's long expected announcement concerning Sunita Williams comes just ahead of the visit to India this week of Nasa administrator Michael Griffin to finalise American participation on India's unmanned Chandrayaan moon mission.

Griffin is expected to sign a MoU with ISRO for placing American scientific instruments in Chadrayaan-I on its scheduled 2008 launch. According to Nasa's biography of Sunita, she has a US Navy background. A graduate of Florida Institute of Technology, she received her commission as an Ensign in the US Navy from the US Naval Academy in May 1987. She was designated a Naval Aviator in 1989, and graduated from the Naval Test Pilot School in 1993.

She was later assigned to Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 8 in Norfolk, Virginia, and made overseas deployments to the Mediterranean, Red Sea and the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Shield.

She was selected for the astronaut programme by Nasa in June 1998, in part because of her extensive experience on more than 30 different aircraft. She has since been an "Astronaut Candidate" under training waiting for her space flight assignment which Nasa announced on Tuesday. Sunita, who was born in Ohio (Kalpana Chawla was born in Karnal, Haryana), is married to physicist-turned-US deputy marshall, Michael J Williams.

She is the daughter of Deepak Pandya, an India-born physician who migrated to US in the 1960s and now works at a veterans hospital. Her mother Ursaline, a home-maker, is an American of Slavic descent.

In a previously published interview, she described her father as a traditional Hindu and therefore a vegetarian. "My mother would cook two different meals each day one Indian and one meat and potatoes so I got to eat a little bit of both and a good variety.

I still like spicier food," she recalled, speaking of her fondness for samosas. About her father, she said, "He was orphaned and so is very accepting of others' goals and trying new things."

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