A U.S. Naval Test Pilot School grad took the reins of the International Space Station on Sept. 17 to lead Expedition 33 and its crew with varying experiments aboard the orbiting research vessel.
NASA Astronaut Navy Capt. Sunita "Suni" Williams, who launched into space July 14 for the turnover, became the second woman to command the space station and seventh TPS grad; she is also the second person in her TPS class, Class 104, which graduated in December 1993, to command the vessel.
"TPS Class 104 continues to be impressive," said former classmate, Joe Mortensen, who serves as the chief of staff for Test and Evaluation Group, Naval Air Systems Command (5.0). "The class has had fleet squadron COs (commanding officers), test squadron COs, test wing commanders, Navy ship captains, an admiral and astronauts."
The other Class 104 graduate to command the ISS was NASA Astronaut Army Col. Wheelock in 2010.
"It has been a good run for TPS Class 104 at the ISS," Mortensen added.
Barry Minchey, an AIR 184.108.40.206 Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division employee in Orlando, Fla., is another classmate of Williams.
Keeping in contact with Williams over the years, Mortensen said she is an "outgoing, friendly, outstanding leader with a zest for lifeimpressive."
Minchey agreed, describing Williams as "the same funny, positive, ambitious, persistent, inspirational person as before."
During her June 4 preflight NASA interview, Williams said she's excited to run the space station mostly because of the team she's working with.
"I've got a team that we've worked for the last two and a half years together and I think ... that's where you really foster that leadership-followership thing ... beforehand," she said. "When you get up on the space station, you know what to do, so I'm not nervous about it all. I'm psyched."
Williams was commissioned in the Navy following graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in May 1987 with a bachelor's in physical science. Shortly after, she earned her Basic Diving Officer designation before seeking a career in naval aviation. She was designated as a Naval Aviator in July 1989 flying rotary wing aircraft. Since then, Williams has logged more than 3,000 flight hours in more than 30 different aircraft. She even served as a Naval Test Pilot School instructor in the Rotary Wing Department in 1995.
Williams, a Needham, Mass., native, was selected for Astronaut Candidate Training in June 1998 while she was serving aboard USS Saipan (LHA-2) and reported three months later.
She said she never thought about being an astronaut growing up. In fact, it wasn't until she was a student at Test Pilot School when she began to consider the possibilities.
During a TPS class trip to tour the Johnson Space Center, Williams had the opportunity to hear former astronaut John Young talk about landing on the moon and using "a vertical landing system to land."
"That was the very first time it even dawned on me that ... this was a pathway to be an astronaut," Williams said. "So I thought, wow, maybe I have what it takes to be an astronaut."
In her preflight interview she said she didn't know much about the astronaut program, but thought it must be similar to what test pilots do.
"You have a vehicle, and not only just a physical vehicle but also experiments, biomedical experiments; it's all the same type of thing where there's a test plan, a program which has a review; you do the tests, you come back, feed results to make the programs better and better," she said. "And so it just actually seemed like it was the perfect fit after I figured it out."
With more than 200 days already under her belt, Williams holds the women's record for days in orbit and space walk hours logging six walks totaling 44 hours and two minutes. Williams and her crew, Japan's Aki Hoshide and the Russian Yury Malenchenko, are scheduled to live and work aboard the ISS until January. They will be joined by NASA Astronaut Kevin Ford and Russian Cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin in October.
Williams' previous space expeditions include serving as a flight engineer for Expedition 14/15 from December 2006 to June 2007, and again from July to Sept. 17 for Expedition 32 before taking command of Expedition 33.
Other TPS grads to command the ISS include: June 1982 graduate Frank Culbertson in 2001 on Expedition 3; June 1987 graduate William S. McArthur in 2005 on Expedition 12; December 1988 graduate Michael Lopez-Alegria in 2006 on Expedition 14; June 1993 graduate Jeffrey Williams in 2009 on Expedition 22; December 1993 graduate Douglas H. Wheelock in 2010 on Expedition 25; and June 1994 graduate Scott Kelly in 2010 on Expedition 26.