Almost four years after the death of first Indian-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla in the Columbia space shuttle disaster, Nasa has sent another women of Indian origin into space.

Sunita Lyn Williams, flight engineer for Nasa’s 14th expedition, is one of seven crew members for the mission.

Sunita’s parents were there to witness the first flight of their daughter into space from Cape Canavarel in Florida.
And countless Indians were among those who watched her first flight with excitement and hope.

Ms Williams is a second generation Indian-American and has been with Nasa for the past eight years.

She was designated a naval aviator in 1989 and graduated from the naval test pilot school in 1993. She has logged more than 2,770 flight hours in 30 different types of aircraft.

Sunita was born in Ohio on 19 September 1965. Her father Deepak Pandya, a neurologist, migrated to the US from the Indian city of Ahmedabad in 1958.

She is married to Michael Williams and they live in Oregon.

Sunita’s family and friends are ecstatic about her space odyssey. Her mother Bonnie said that Sunita always had her sights on space.

"To tell you the truth she had been waiting for this opportunity for quite a while now and finally it’s going to come true, so she is very happy and we are very happy for her."

‘Proud of Sunita’

Well-wishers from across continents have joined Sunita and her family in the celebrations.

Messages of support have poured in from far and wide. From India, relatives telephoned to congratulate her from the cities of Ahmedabad and Junagarh, where her father practiced medicine for some time.

"My relatives in India are calling up and they are so happy about this… they all are so proud of Sunita," her father, Deepak, said.

An expert naval diver, and an experienced fighter pilot, Sunita’s first step in her career was to graduate from the US naval academy.

Her mother, Bonnie, recalls how diligently she pursued her goals.

"She just concentrated on her studies, did a lot of swimming, played soccer, played the piano, took ballet lessons and she was the captain of the swimming team in high school and college.

"So I think all that discipline really helped her to focus on her career."

‘Love samosas’

Ms Williams says Kalpana Chawla was a source of inspiration.

"I am half Indian and I’ve got a group of Indian people who were looking forward to seeing this second person of Indian origin flying up in 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."

She has been in constant touch with her Indian roots, and has visited India several times. She loves to eat Indian food, especially samosas.

Her next ambition?

"Maybe Mars," she says.