Suni Williams Takes Command of ISS; Only Second Woman Commander

Suni Williams Takes Command of ISS; Only Second Woman Commander

NASA astronaut Sunita (Suni) Williams ceremonially took command of the International Space Station (ISS) today from departing commander Gennady Padalka.  Williams is only the second woman to command the ISS in its nearly 12 years of permanent occupancy.

Russia’s Padalka and Sergei Revin and NASA’s Joe Acaba are getting ready to return to Earth in their Soyuz TMA-04M spacecraft after approximately six months aboard the ISS.  They are scheduled to undock tomorrow, September 16, at 7:09 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) and land in Kazakhstan at 10:53 pm EDT (8:53 am September 17 local time in Kazakshtan).  An earlier NASA press release said undocking was at 7:11 pm, but the NASA space station website today says 7:09 pm.

The traditional Change-of-Command ceremony took place today, although officially Padalka remains in command until he departs.

Williams will remain onboard with Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko and Japan’s Aki Hoshide.   They will be joined by three more ISS crew members next month — NASA’s Kevin Ford and Russia’s Oleg Novitsky and Evgeny Tarelkin.  The Williams crew is scheduled to return to Earth on November 12.

NASA’s Peggy Whitson was the first woman to command ISS in 2009.  As Itar-Tass, Russia’s official news service, noted, Whitson commanded “only” two men while Williams will have five (three Russians, an American and a Japanese) under her command.  Women do not figure prominently in Russia’s cosmonaut corps.  Although the Soviet Union launched the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963, only two more female cosmonauts have gone into space since then:  Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to perform a spacewalk and the first woman to make two spaceflights (1982 and 1984); and Yelena Kondakova in 1995, who set a spaceflight duration record for a woman at that time.   Savitskaya’s flights were on the Soviet Salyut 7 space station; Kondakova was aboard Mir.  No Russian female cosmonauts have been part of the International Space Station crews.

By comparison, women have flown on U.S. space missions routinely since 1984 when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.   Kathy Sullivan was the first U.S. woman to make a spacewalk, soon after Savitskaya’s in 1984.   The fact that Sullivan would be making a spacewalk was known well in advance and it is widely believed that the Soviets arranged one for Savitiskaya so they could claim another space “first,” a signature feature of the Cold War era space race.

Women from Canada, Japan, France, and China also have flown into space as part of their countries’ astronaut corps.   Other women have flown as payload specialists on the U.S. space shuttle or as paying “tourists” — from the United States (one of whom is Iranian-American and is sometimes counted as Iranian), United Kingdom, and South Korea.

Williams currently holds the record for spacewalk duration by a woman: 44 hours and two minutes accumulated over six spacewalks — four on a previous ISS tour of duty and two on this one.   Whitson is second, with 39 hours 46 minutes also over six spacewalks.

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