A new elementary school in Massachusetts will be named after Indian-American NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who formerly held the record for cumulative spacewalking time by a female astronaut.
Earlier this month, the Needham Public Schools committee voted to name a new elementary school being built to replace an existing one in Needham — a town 17 miles southwest of Boston — Sunita L. Williams Elementary School.
“The committee felt Sunita represented Needham Public Schools not because she attended Needham Public Schools and coincidentally also attended the school that is being rebuilt. Sunita represents a woman in the STEM field … which is important for young women in the country to see other women involved in,” Heidi Black, chair of the Needham School Committee, told NBC News.
Williams was born in Ohio, but grew up in Needham and attended public schools in the town. She considers it her hometown.
Williams is one of two Asian Americans in NASA’s astronaut corp, which currently consists of 44 active astronauts, Brandi Dean, public affairs specialist at NASA, told NBC News. She was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1998, has spent a total of 322 days in space, and previously served in the Navy.
Williams said that having an elementary school in her hometown named after her as humbling and overwhelming.
“I hope this will be a new spark and addition to the town. I’m excited for the future of the students there and I hope it opens up their eyes to even greater possibilities than what was obvious from when I was there,” she told NBC News.
Williams was one of two candidates after whom Needham Public Schools considered naming the new school. The other, Leslie Cutler, was the first woman selectman in Needham in the early 1990s. She also served in the Massachusetts state legislature.
“We felt that [Sunita], along with Leslie Cutler, truly were both pioneers and role models,” Black said.
In Needham, no school building is named after a woman, Black said. The first will be named after Williams.
“She’s a woman of color and we felt she really encapsulated all the values of the school and our community, and we wanted to acknowledge that,” Black said.
The new school is scheduled to officially open its doors in September 2019, at which point Williams plans on visiting if she is not in space.