Students at Sunita Williams school dressed in space garb for their video link with her from the International Space Station/ Credit: Needham Observer

Needham’s own astronaut, Sunita “Suni” Williams, launched into space on June 5 aboard the Boeing Starliner, docking at the International Space Station the following day. Astronauts Williams (the pilot) and Butch Wilmore (the captain) are the first human crew to fly the Starliner, on a mission known as Crew Flight Test (CFT). Williams spoke with the Observer about the mission earlier this year.

One group of Earthlings eagerly following the mission were the students at Williams’ namesake elementary school, Sunita L. Williams Elementary School, known to the town as SWES. 

Williams held a video conference with SWES students on Monday that was streamed live on NASA TV. During the 25-minute call, which was joined at times by other ISS crew members, students had the opportunity to ask their questions.

The event required intense preparation involving Boeing, NASA and the school. According to Superintendent Dan Gutekanst, “The principal, Ms. Brunson, and I suggested to Suni that when she goes back up in space we’d love to connect with her. She’s taken those messages back to Boeing and NASA. We’ve had many conversations about how we can make it happen.”

The students did their own preparation. Gutekanst said, “They have been doing developmentally appropriate astronomy lessons, and they learned when Suni was last here about the aircraft she’s flying and what the spacecraft looks like.”

SWES opened in 2019, replacing Hillside Elementary School. “I’m really thrilled that the School Committee took the opportunity to name the school after this amazing Needham High School graduate who’s a scientist, astronaut, person of color, and an extraordinary inspiration to our students,” said Gutekanst.

Did Needham schools do something special to produce an astronaut? “Kids who end up in the Needham public school system are incredibly fortunate,” said School Committee Chair Liz Lee. “A lot of things have gone right to land you in this school system. And the schools have worked really hard to provide the most current, informed, research-based education. That allows students to be exposed to a variety of ideas and get a sense of where they might like to go as adults. That is an incredible gift to students.”

Watch the entire event recorded by NASA.

Here are some of the students’ questions and her answers. 

How did she prepare for the launch?

It’s just like going to school. … We had about as many years as the kids in fifth grade there, probably about five years of preparation.

How does it feel in space? 

Pretty dynamic … G forces squish you a bit … fun … effortless. Being in space is pretty awesome. Everybody up here is like your brother, your sister. We’re all a big family.

Is it cold in space?

Sometimes it’s cold and sometimes it’s warm. A team on the ground controls the thermostat.

Any games you play in space?

Sometimes hide and go seek. Sometimes we see who can fly the straightest. Every day is fun. Maybe you would call it games; maybe you would call it work, but just being in space is a lot of fun.

Do you feel like you are on a roller coaster? 

You do get blasted off the planet. The rocket ride was definitely like a roller coaster.

What do the stars/moon craters/planets look like from space? What planets have you seen? 

We never have a cloudy day up here. There’s no atmosphere. Earth is right out that window. I can usually pick out Mars because it’s pinkish. Venous is small. Jupiter is big, and if it’s lined up and if you know your astronomy and where to look, that will make it easier (to see).

Credit: Needham Observer

How do you keep from floating around while sleeping?

We have a sleeping bag, and we can put a clip on the end and tie it to a handrail so it doesn’t float all over the place.

Do you feel blood rushing to your head when you are upside down?

No. I’m sleeping on the ceiling in the module. You can do everything upside down.”

How many times have you done a space walk?

My first flight I got to do four and my second flight three more.

How many days will you be in space?

We’re not exactly sure when we’re going to come back, but I think we’re going to be up here about two weeks.

Show us a flip.

(Williams and her best friend, astronaut Tracy Dyson, happily obliged.)

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