Astronaut Suni Williams will tell Sonoma about her NASA career, space travel and her next destination

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The recent 50th anniversary of the moon landing rekindled broad interest in space travel, and having Rusty Schweickart – a Sonoma resident and Apollo astronaut – serve as the Fourth of July parade’s grand marshal brought it home locally.

Extra: See the ISS tour from Suni Williams in video below...

Eyes turned skyward again for lunar eclipses, meteor showers and other astral phenomenon, as if being earthbound was simply too limiting in this day and age.

The Sonoma Speakers Series next week will host perhaps their most unusual guest: a woman who embraces several job descriptions – from scientist to athlete to astronaut – Sunita Williams.

Sally Ride wasn’t the first female astronaut, though she was the first American woman to journey into space, in 1983. But it was 20 years earlier that the Soviet Union launched Valentina Tershkova into space, on June 16, 1963 – she orbited the earth 48 times and is still the only woman to have made a solo space mission. (Her accomplishment renders pale John Glenn’s paltry three orbits the year before.)

If Ride was the first American, she was far from the last – her immediate successor in space, astronaut Judith Resnik, was killed in the Challenger disaster of Jan. 28, 1986, though she had orbited before. But literally dozens of women followed in their wake over the following decades until, in December of 2006, Sunita Williams became the 45th woman to venture above the atmosphere, making the journey to the International Space Station aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Williams will come to Sonoma on Monday, Aug. 19, to celebrate the anniversary of the lunar landing as well as women’s role in the space program. The presentation will take place at the Hanna Boys Center auditorium, where Williams will be introduced by Schweickart and interviewed on stage by Sonoma resident Bill Angeloni.

“The first time I remember hearing her name was when she set the new record for sit-ups at Annapolis during our first summer there,” said Angeloni. She did 120 in two minutes. I should have known then that her tenacity would take her far.”

Like Williams, Angeloni attended the U.S. Naval Academy at a time when the space program was in full flower: the missions to the moon had ended years earlier, but the Space Shuttle was making regular flights to the first orbital station, Spacelab, and in 1983 – when Williams was starting her career at Annapolis – Sally Ride took her historic flight.

“There were a few of us that were dreaming of becoming an astronaut — I wanted to do that since eighth grade at Altimira,” said Angeloni, described by the Speaker Series as a “serial entrepreneur.” He recalls that Williams wanted to fly, but teases that how she decided to become an astronaut will be discussed at the Aug. 19 event.

“I really want the students to understand her road to becoming an astronaut, that it was not a straight path, and she had to overcome several obstacles along the way,” said Angeloni.

Williams, now 53, ticks all the boxes on the astronaut’s checklist: a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in physical science and the Florida Institute of Technology in engineering, she became a naval aviator in 1989 and served overseas in Operation Desert Shield and other operations. Her interest in aviation grew and she went to the Navy’s test pilot school, testing in an array of advanced helicopters.

When she applied to be an astronaut, however, she was put off during one interview by a squad commander who told her, “Being an astronaut is for jet pilots, not for helicopter pilots.”

Williams, however, persisted. “If you know that’s what you want, you’ve just got to go for it,” said the determined Williams.

She was selected by NASA for the astronaut program in 1998, but it was another eight years before Williams made her first space mission – aboard the Discovery to the International Space Station (ISS) in December, 2006. There she remained for almost six months, 192 days – setting a record for longest single spaceflight by a woman.

During her record-setting stay at the ISS, she completed three space walks for a duration of six hours and 40 minutes and, more significantly, became the first astronaut to run a marathon in space. Williams was listed as an official entrant for the 2007 Boston Marathon, on April 15, completing the distance in 4:24 on a treadmill circling 254 miles above the surface of the Earth. (She ran it again the next year, on land this time – beating her space time by four minutes.)

Williams returned to space five years later, this time launching from Russia in the Soyuz spacecraft and arriving back at the ISS on July 17, 2012, along with a Russian cosmonaut and a Japanese astronaut. Though initially a crew member of ISS 32, when the crew was refreshed and the mission changed to ISS 33, Williams became only the second woman to serve as commander of the International Space Station.

The marathon behind her, this time Williams decided to do a triathlon, “running” four miles, “biking” 18 miles and even “swimming” half a mile on the station’s fitness equipment. She also made four additional space walks, bringing her total to over 50 hours outside the airtight security of the International Space Station.

“Suni is fearless and a go getter, but she’s also one of the nicest people you will ever meet,” said Angeloni. “I think that combination has served her well throughout her career, and certainly her time on the space station.”

Williams returned to earth on Nov. 19, 2012, but her astronaut career isn’t over yet. In July 2015, she was chosen as an astronaut in the U.S. commercial spaceflights program, and is in line to fly a third time to the ISS, possibly as soon as next year.

She is also among a small, selective group of just 12 who are in the running to send a woman to the moon in 2024. If selected, she could become the first woman to walk on the moon.

But first, she’ll be in Sonoma talking about the space program, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. “I hope people will walk away with a newly-awakened passion for what lies ahead with the space program,” said Angeloni.

For more information about the Sonoma Speakers Series celebration of space, visit their website at sonomaspeakerseries.com.

See the 30-minute tour of the International Space Station, from Suni Williams 2007 mission.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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