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Kalpana lives in Sunita

Washington, Feb. 3: The trail blazed by Kalpana Chawla will not go cold.

Saturday’s crash of Columbia may slow down America’s space programme, but when it gathers speed again, Chawla’s place will be taken in Indian and Indian-American hearts by Sunita Pandya.

Married to American Michael Williams and, therefore, now known as Sunita Williams, the 37-year-old Indian American is undergoing training at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for her maiden space flight.

She will become the second American of Indian origin to fly with Nasa as and when she is ready to go into space with the international space station, Expedition-10, at a date as yet unspecified.

Sunita, a US navy commander and recipient of two navy commemoration medals and several other service awards, was spotted by Nasa during an astronaut class for naval pilots in 1998.

She has been undergoing training with Nasa since August that year, but by a quirk of fate, the announcement that she would become the second Indian-American astronaut was made by America’s space organisation exactly one month before the Columbia crash took the life of the pioneer American astronaut of Indian origin.

The intensive training that astronauts have to undergo before going into orbit starts with orientation briefings and tours to space centres. Then there are scientific and technical briefings followed, among other things, by sessions inside shuttle capsules and international space station modules.

The prospective astronauts are also put through a string of physiological tests, then trained in survival techniques in water and the wilderness.

According to Nasa sources, Sunita has already completed her underwater training on Aquarius, an underwater ocean laboratory 60 feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean.

She wrote in her mission journal maintained by Nasa after the first day at the underwater laboratory: “I miss my husband and my dog. Wondered how they were doing and laughed at their funny little characteristics that I miss.”

Re-reading an article in USA Today about training for astronauts in the aftermath of Saturday’s tragedy, it is evident that the thought of danger is never far from the minds of those who prepare to go into space.

The article quotes Sunita as telling a space reporter about her tryst with cosmos: “The other day it hit me. This is not a simulator where, if something goes wrong, you can just open the door and go home.”

Sunita was born in Euclid, Ohio, to Deepak and Ursaline Pandya, who now live in Falmouth, Massachusetts. She went to school in Needham, Massachusetts; graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1987 and then did her Master’s in engineering management from the Florida Institute of Technology.

She is both a navy diver and a naval aviator and has logged over 2,300 hours on 30 different aircraft.

Sunita has no children, says her official bio-data with Nasa, but has an “awesome” black Labrador retriever named Turbo.

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