Spacewalker Savoring Opportunity of Lifetime

Navy Commander Sunita Williams is a tall, willowy brunette -- and smart, very smart. She flew helicopters in the Navy, and has logged over 2,700 hours in 30 different aircraft.

She is also the eighth American woman to walk in space.

Kathryn Sullivan was the first, when she flew on Challenger in 1984. Others include Kathryn Thornton, Linda Godwin, Susan Helms, Tamara Jernigan, Peggy Whitsun and Heide Stefanyshyn Piper, who helped install the huge truss on the space station earlier this summer.

Williams danced to Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" when the crew on the space station played it down to Mission Control as she was getting ready to get into her spacesuit. She lets her hair float free, and it is so long you wonder how she gets it all stuffed into the helmet of her spacesuit.

Why haven't more women walked in space? There are several reasons. There aren't that many women in the astronaut corps, though their numbers have increased. There haven't been that many flights in recent years because of the Columbia accident, and the spacesuits aren't one size fits all.

NASA has 12 spacesuits with interchangeable parts, and each spacesuit comes with a price tag of $12 million. The arms and the legs are interchangeable and can be sized to some extent for small, medium and large. But the hard torsos of the spacesuit don't have much range in size.

Williams said the suit is, in essence, a mini spacecraft.

"It's a great suit," she said. "It's protecting you. You have a beautiful view outside of your visor. The double-paned visor that is protecting you is your personal view on the Earth and the space station once you get out the door, as we call it. But the suit is very big and very heavy and hard to work in."

Other astronauts have told her that first step out can be a little intimidating. After all, the Earth is whipping by at five miles a second.

"Nothing is below you," she said. "You won't see any of the space station below you. You will just see the Earth below you, so I think that is just going to be breathtaking. On the way out, I think it is going to be sort of comforting, particularly on my first spacewalk to go out feet first, so I will have a view of things I am comfortable with -- the airlock, the handrails, as I get right outside of the hatch -- and then be able to look around and see the space station around me. So I won't feel, I hope I won't feel, like I am falling at that point in time. I think it will take me some time to get a little bit acclimated to be working around on the space station."

Williams will be staying behind when the space shuttle Discovery returns to Earth later this week. She is the newest member of Expedition 14 on the International Space Station, which means she will be staying on orbit for six months. That's a long time to spend away from her husband, Dan Williams, and her Jack Russell terrier, Gorby. She said what makes it easier is the advance planning.

"Luckily enough, I don't have to choose my clothes," she said. "Those are all already chosen for me, and they will all already up there or coming up with me. I also don't have to choose my food. Most of that will already be up there, and then we get to choose what we want on a weekly basis, the things we want to eat.

"It is just incredible, a once-in-a-lifetime event, to go to a place where we can be watching the beautiful planet," she added. "And I look at all of the tasks that we have to do up there, and I can't even imagine that we will really have any free time because it's going to be busy. I think the six months are going to fly by."

She is well aware she is a role model.

"I wasn't always the sharpest tool in the shed, the smartest kid on the block," she said, "but I was persistent, and I hope kids understand it is okay to fail, if you learn something from failing. I didn't do that great at the naval academy, I did okay there, but enough to get me a billet where I was doing something operational.

"I tell little girls about the story when I started flight school," she added. "'Top Gun' came out, so of course everybody wanted to fly jets. That was the cool thing to do and I put that down as my first choice. But I got helicopters because there weren't that many jet billets. I did pretty good at that. You just sort of take what you get. Maybe you don't get the first thing that you want. If you are good at what you do, and you try hard, some things sort of fall into place. I hope that message comes across clearly, that if you want something, you can obtain it -- maybe not the path you thought you were going down, but it will work out if you try hard and are persistent."

Williams will have several more spacewalks during her time on the International Space Station before she comes home in 2007.