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New Space Station Astronaut Proud of Indian Roots

When the space shuttle Discovery rockets into space on Thursday, onboard will be a new crewmember for the International Space Station -- Sunita Williams. The 41 year old astronaut of Indian and Yugoslavian descent will spend six months conducting experiments onboard the orbiting outpost, fulfilling a childhood dream. For producer Deepak Dobhal, VOA's Jim Bertel introduces us to this second generation American.

Sunita Williams says she is "very lucky" to be going into space. The rookie astronaut and her six crewmates on the space shuttle Discovery will be making the first night launch of a shuttle since the Columbia disaster three years ago. The 12-day mission is considered one of the most challenging flights yet as spacewalking astronauts rewire the power system on the international space station. For Williams, the flight marks the beginning of a six-month stay on the space station.

Williams is only the second woman of Indian descent to fly in space. She follows Kalpana Chawla who died along with her six crewmates when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth in 2003. Williams is proud of her roots.

"I am half Indian and I have got a, I am sure a group of Indian people who are looking forward to seeing a second Indian, person of Indian origin, flying into space. So, it's nice to know that everybody brings along with them a group of people from all over the world that get interested in space."

A letter written in Hindi by her father will be among the few personal items Williams will take into space. She considers her father Deepak Pandya, an immigrant, as her role model.

"He is an amazing role model because I think my accomplishments are relatively easy. When I think about someone leaving their home country and starting all over and becoming a success, it is amazing"

Williams' father came to the U.S. in 1958 after completing his bachelor's degree in medicine from India. Her mother Bonnie's family moved to the U.S. from the former Yugoslavia. Williams believes her journey follows that tradition.

"People for centuries have risked their (lives) to try to give us one step forward. I am just honored that I am in a position that I can do that too."

Williams underwent 8 years of rigorous mental and physical training at the U.S. space agency, NASA, in preparation for this flight.

"I am in the pool a couple of times in a week where we do our spacewalk training. I am in simulators, hands-on."

Despite all of the training, things can still go wrong. Since the Columbia accident, many people have voiced concerns about the shuttle's safety. But Williams' parents are not worried.

Her father says, "I am just going to pray that she goes up, and comes back safe. She is so close to God and to go towards God's land, which is space, is so admirable"