This week’s America250 salute is Navy Veteran Sunita Williams.
When three-year-old Sunita Williams watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, she knew she wanted to be an astronaut.
“I never really thought that, that would happen in my life,” Williams shared in her first preflight interview. “It seemed too far out there, something that I could never achieve.”
Now, Williams is one of NASA’s most experienced flight engineers, having spent a total of 322 days in space across two missions.
Williams was born in Euclid, Ohio, as the youngest of three children. She grew up in Needham, Massachusetts, and graduated from high school in 1983. She turned down a spot at Columbia University and instead followed in her brother’s footsteps by accepting a commission at the United States Naval Academy. Although she initially wanted to become a Navy diver, Williams instead trained as a helicopter pilot. After completing flight school in Pensacola, Florida, Williams went to Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 8 based in Norfolk, Virginia. She deployed to the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf, assisting in Operations Desert Shield and Provide Comfort during the Gulf War.
After returning from the Middle East, Williams was the officer-in-charge of a helicopter detachment aboard USS Sylvania during rescue operations in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. Her distinguished flying career earned her a spot in the Navy’s Test Pilot School in Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, where she trained on a variety of aircraft. It was on a field trip to the Johnson Space Center that Williams met several NASA astronauts and attended an influential talk by John Young.
“I remember him talking about learning how to fly a helicopter to land the lunar lander,” she said, “Something just clicked in my head, and I said, ‘wow,’ you know, maybe there’s a use for helicopter pilots, if we’re going to go back to the moon. So, I sort of said to myself, the only one who’s telling me I’m not going to be an astronaut is me. I did the research on what was required, and I got my master’s degree and applied.”
After graduating from the test pilot school in 1993, she earned her master’s degree in engineering management. Williams then became an aircraft handler aboard the amphibious assault carrier USS Saipan. During her deployment, NASA selected her for the astronaut program. In August 1998, she returned to the U.S. to begin training.
After completing training, Williams spent time in Moscow, Russia, assisting the Russian Space Agency with their contributions to the International Space Station. As part of NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operation, she lived underwater for nine days in the Aquarius undersea research station.
Her first trip to space was in December 2006 as a flight engineer on mission STS-116 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. During her six months at the International Space Station, Williams set a world record for most time spent on space walks by a woman. She also became the first person to run a marathon in space. Williams returned to the International Space Station in 2012 on Expedition 32/33, spending four months conducting research and making repairs. Williams retired from the Navy in May 2017 at the rank of captain. Her decorations include two Defense Superior Service Medals, a Legion of Merit, two Navy Commendation Medals, a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and a Humanitarian Service Medal.
She is currently training as part of NASA’s public-private spacecraft partnership program. She has been named as commander of the upcoming Boeing CST-100 Starliner mission to the space station.
Thank you for your service.
VA is highlighting 250 Veterans leading up to July 4, 2026, which marks 250 years of independence. Learn more about the count down to 250 years of the American spirit at https://america250.org/.
Writer: Isabel Mahon, Michael Rattner
Editors: Julia Pack and Annabelle Colton
Fact Checker: Timothy Georgetti
Graphic Designer: Grace Yang