Town where Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams grew up names new school after her

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Astronaut Sunita Williams at the International Space Station (Photo: NASA)

The town of Needham, Massachusetts has named its newest elementary school after Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams, who graduated from the city’s public school system and has remained in close touch with the community.

The School Committee decided on Williams from the two choices it was considering, the other being political activist Leslie Cutler Smith, a historical figure from the early 1900s. The local newspaper, Needham.wickedlocal.com, reported that the Central Avenue building, which will replace the Hillside School, slated to be built by 2019, will be named in honor of Williams, a Needhamite and graduagted from Needham High in 1983.

“As a Hillside alum and pioneer in her field, Sunita Williams is a wonderful role model for our students,” Principal Michael Kascak is quoted saying. “I am also thrilled to have the new school named after a woman. A first in Needham.” The School Committee’s objective was to select a woman’s name for the school and ” After receiving dozens and dozens of suggestions of names from community members, the School Committee’s School Naming Subcommittee has proposed that two notable Needhamites, Leslie Cutler and Sunita Williams, should be considered for this honor,” wrote Dan Gutekanst, superintendent of Needham Public Schools.

“We’re really thrilled to unanimously support (Williams’) name for the new elementary school,” School Committee Chairwoman Heidi Black is quoted saying. “She had a history of service to our community. She represents … something to aspire to.”

Gutekanst praised the choice and recalled Capt. Williams communications with students in Needham from the International Space Station. “In partnership with NASA, Babson College, and the Needham Public Schools, she gave ‘distance learning’ a whole new meaning for students and staff as she discussed, through a complex video link, life aboard the Space Station and answered questions about weather and gravity,” Gutekanst is quoted saying. He said Williams left students excited about learning and connected with them through her enthusiasm and joy for her work.

The Assistant Principal of Needham High, Chanit List, she Williams “exemplifies our school motto, “Work Hard and Be Nice.”In his blog Gutekanst noted Williams ethnicity as the daughter of an Indian-American father and a Slovenian-American mother, which he said, “reflects racial, geographic and ethnic diversity.”

After graduating from Neetham, Williams, 52, went on to earn a Bachelor of Science from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1987 and an MS in Engineering Management from Florida Institute of Technology in 1995.  Starting as an Ensign in the Navy in 1987, Williams became a Naval Aviator in 1989, trained in Helicopter Combat support and was deployed to the Persian Gulf. She also served as Officer-in-Charge aboard the USS Sylvania in Miami, FL to provide support for the Hurricane Andrew Relief Operations.  Williams went on to complete U.S. Test Pilot School in 1993 and ultimately logged over 3000 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft.

She was selected by NASA as an astronaut in 1998 and has served on two International Space Station missions, first as a flight engineer and then as commander. She spent 322 days in space during which she completed 7 space walks, doing a total of 50 hours and 40 minutes outside the space station. That was a record for a female astronaut until this March 31st.

While in space, Williams ran the first ever marathon completing the 2007 Boston Marathon in 4 hours and 24 minutes. In 2015, NASA announced she would be one of the first astronauts to go on U.S. commercial spaceflights.

In July 2015 NASA announced that Sunita would become one of the first astronauts for US Commercial Spaceflights. Williams is currently working with Boeing and SpaceX to prepare for that. She has received the Navy Commendation and Humanitarian Service medals, and recognition from the governments of India, Russia, and Slovenia.

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