astronaut Sunita Williams poses with her spacesuit
NASA
NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Expedition 32 flight engineer and commander of the International Space Station's Expedition 33 crew, poses for a photo with her spacesuit ahead of an Aug. 30 spacewalk.
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updated 9/16/2012 11:47:23 AM ET 2012-09-16T15:47:23

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who holds the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman, took charge of the International Space Station Saturday, becoming only the second female commander in the orbiting lab's 14-year history.

Williams took charge of the space station from Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who is returning to Earth on Sunday after months commanding the outpost's six-person Expedition 32 crew. Williams launched to the station in July and will command its Expedition 33 crew before returning to Earth in November.

"I would like to thank our [Expedition] 32 crewmates here who have taught us how to live and work in space, and of course to have a lot of fun up in space," Williams told Padalka during a change of command ceremony. She will officially take charge of the station on Sunday, after Padalka and two crewmates board their Soyuz spacecraft for the trip home.

Padalka, NASA astronaut Joe Acaba and cosmonaut Sergei Revin are scheduled to undock from the space station Sunday at 7:09 p.m. EDT (2309 GMT) and land in the Central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan at 10:53 p.m. EDT (0253 on Sept. 17). The trio is wrapping up a five-month mission to the space station and Padalka thanked his crewmates and flight controllers on the ground for their help during the flight.

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Sunita Williams arrived at the space station on July 17 on a Soyuz spacecraft with two crewmates: Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko. They will be joined by three new crewmembers in October.

Williams, 46, is a captain in the U.S. Navy and flying on her second long-duration space mission. She first launched into space in 2007 and spent 195 consecutive days in space, setting a record for the longest single spaceflight by a female astronaut. On Sept. 19, she'll celebrate her birthday in space.

In a NASA interview before launch, Williams said a friend asked her if she was nervous about commanding the space station. She said no, adding that the more than two years of training alongside her Expedition 32 and 33 crewmates, as well as the Mission Control team, prepared all the space station crewmembers for life in space.

"When you get up on the space station, you know what to do, so I’m not nervous about it all," Williams said. "I’m psyched."

The first female commander of the International Space Station was NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who commanded the orbiting lab's Expedition 16 mission between fall 2007 and spring 2008. Whitson later served as NASA's chief astronaut and recently stepped down from the post to rejoin the Astronaut Corps' spaceflying ranks. Two other female astronauts, Eileen Collins and Pam Melroy, commanded NASA space shuttles.

Mission Control sent Williams a few words to mark her new role as space station skipper.

"Congratulations on the promotion to your new position," a flight control told Williams after today's ceremony. "We know you'll run a fine ship up there."

You can follow SPACE.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter@tariqjmalik and SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

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Video: Record-holding female spacewalker to command ISS

  1. Closed captioning of: Record-holding female spacewalker to command ISS

    >>> finally tonight, a long distance dedication to the crew of the international space station . a lot of folks forget those people are living up there. we have links on our website that allow you to find out when it is coming over where you live at night. for example, tomorrow morning just before 6:00, it will be a bright dot streaking across the sky over new york city , weather permitting, and every morning for the next few days. among those on board, astronaut sunny williams, with 155 consecutive days in space, the record holder among women, and also the top space walker spent outside the space craft . sunny becomes commander. we recently talked to her and the crew. hello, sunny, we loved what you had done to your hair. yeah, special greetings to conan o'brien behind you, with the magnificent hair do. with the shuttle program over, astronauts these days have to hitch with ride with the russians. sunny doesn't mind that, pointing out they launched on the test project, the first ever joint-american russian flight.

    >> it sort of was the first step in our international friendship. and i think we have come a long way. i consider the guys here my brothers.

    >> and they do live like a family there, joe acaba is the other member on the space station , returning to earth this weekend. joe, how do you describe the station there? is it like a small new york city apartment or a small ranch house ? what is it like? well, i think this place is bigger than the place i live in, in houston, like a five-bedroom house.

    >> the space station makes 16 orbits around the earth every day, they know there are folks down here who track their orbits and watch the fly-byes.

    >> we do appreciate it, we're working hard, this is an amazing laboratory, and we can't do it without everybody's support. so we hope what we're doing here will get people excited about the sciences.

    >> it is the images that may just get them interested. spectacular long-exposure images of stars, and views of the earth as seen from 240 miles above, at 17,000 miles an hour. what events on earth are you able to look for and see from up there?

    >> we can see all the natural events that happen up here, like for example, hurricanes and fires. they're really evident. i mean, you even see streaks of airplanes across the sky when they make the vapor trails. it keeps us connected when you look out the window. you are looking right back at the planet, and can't help but wondering what they're doing.

    >> i want to thank the crew for having us, we are watching you, and at least in my house, if i'm aware of an over-flight on a good night, i go out to the porch, and we wave like hell, i don't know if you can see us.

    >> our six pink bodies will be waving back at you.

    >> thank you very much.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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