In December 2006, Sunita Williams became only the second woman of Indian descent to travel to outer space when she was launched on board Space Shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station (ISS). Kalpana Chawla had become the first woman of Indian descent to travel to outer space when she flew on board Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997; in 2003, she was one of the seven crew members of Columbia who lost their lives when the craft disintegrated during its reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Williams, who was born in Euclid, Ohio, in 1965 to an Indian American father and Slovene American mother, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1987. While serving in the Navy in 1998, she was selected by NASA for the agency’s astronaut program. Williams’ inaugural space mission lasted until June 2007. Her second outer space expedition, which lasted more than seven months, began in July 2012 when a Russian Soyuz spacecraft brought her and two other astronauts to the ISS. Williams spent a total of 321 days, 17 hours, and 15 minutes in space during the course of both missions combined, placing her sixth on the all-time U.S. endurance list and second only to Peggy Whitson for American females in this category.