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Sunita takes 2,000 kids on spacewalk

- She has not met ET yet: astronaut shares nuggets from her space odyssey, fields curious questions

Astronaut Sunita Williams calls herself a citizen of the universe, though she has yet to meet ET or any alien during her sorties in outer space.

She took a 2,000-strong audience of children from 20 city-based schools on a virtual spacewalk during an hour-long inspirational lecture at Science City auditorium on Tuesday. When she said her “thank you”, the Indian-American who had spent 322 days in space since her first launch in 2006 fielded a clutch of queries from inquisitive youngsters.

The enthusiasm impressed the space celebrity, who had logged a record-breaking 50-hour-40-minute spacewalk over seven walks in zero-gravity void. “There were 2,000 school students raptly listening to a lecture on space for over an hour. What more evidence do you want that your youngsters are interested in science exploration and some of them will make it to space? I am here to encourage them and others too, to join our International Space Station (ISS) mission. It is a peaceful, international mission and we would like to have more and more people from different countries join us,” Captain Williams said.

The National Council of Science Museums (NCSM) with support from Nasa has organised Suni’s — as she is fondly known — four-day tour of India from April 1. She has already confirmed her role-model status in Delhi (on Monday) and Calcutta, and it would be no different in Mumbai on Wednesday.

Her incredible lecture “Expedition-33 International Space Station Mission: Challenges and Success” stretched over an hour but not a single student fidgeted or buzzed in the seat — other than the occasional coughing and energetic claps.

Sunita the astronaut took the stage in her blue Nasa overalls to explain how she did experiments with fluid in space; how she came to name Node 3 as Tranquility; how the space station protects itself from asteroids and other inter-galactic missiles; and a score of other questions. She also dwelt upon Nasa’s collaboration with Isro.

Sunita the woman, who touched down here in a capri and tee on Monday evening, said she was trying to go the whole nine yards: wear a sari. “Wherever I go I see these pretty saris,” she gushed. Also on her Calcutta to-do list are mishti doi and rosogolla, a visit to Raj Bhavan and a patio party in Taj Bengal.

“I wish I could travel and see India. I have seen Ahmedabad, where my father comes from, but I would really love to go to the Himalayas and also travel to the south, to Kerala and to Goa. But I have to do that incognito some day,” she said.

Then she adds: “I have seen the whole of India from space. When I am in India, my overwhelming impression is that there are a lot of people and that means there are great minds and great ideas.”

Then again, almost as an afterthought, she called herself a citizen of the universe. Williams said: “It feels great to be in space, I become taller, my ageing signs disappear, I have a lot of fun fixing broken things. But when I am asked if I would like to live in space forever, I would say earth is awesome.”

A window seat at the space station or shuttle gives Sunita the high jinks and it is addictive too. “You can start to tell the difference between continents…Latin America is dark, India is purple but the Himalayas is white and brown.”

“I’ve been lucky. I have been on two long missions. I want to step aside a little and let them (new astronauts) fly. More and more people from different places bring their experience and expertise to the table. I brought my Indian and Slovenian roots to the table.”

Sunita the sportsperson (runner, swimmer, biker, triathlete, windsurfer, snowboarder and bow hunter), however, needed a pause when asked to pick the sportsperson she would like to take to space. “That’s tricky. I was a swimmer and it really helped to be in space with my training to be underwater for long. You cannot be too tall because the spacecraft has space limitations, so basketball players are out. You cannot be too short…you can’t fit into a spacesuit. You have to be a bit muscular and be strong. Anyone who has done endurance sport will do well in space.”

Sunita the animal lover, who once wanted to be a vet, said she had loads of fun experimenting with Egyptian spiders Cleopatra and Nefertiti in space. “Their food supply was running out, so we put them in bubblewrap suits and they were taken out of the spacecraft and into the shuttle. Cleopatra did not survive, but Nefertiti did. She was taken to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC where she died after a couple of weeks.”

Sunita the future space author disclosed her plans: “I wrote a journal in space about what life is like in space. A moderated version is on the Nasa website. That has the potential to turn into a book.”