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Not My Job: Astronaut Sunita Williams Gets Quizzed On Storage Space

KURTIS: From NPR and WBEZ Chicago, this is WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME, the NPR news quiz. I'm Bill Kurtis. And here is your host at the Chase Bank Auditorium in Chicago, Peter Sagal.

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

Thank you, Bill.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Once again, we're spending today blissfully ignoring reality and listening back to some of our favorite interviews.

KURTIS: Let's go back to better times, like 2015. In June of that year, we went to Houston to interview astronaut Suni Williams. Peter started by asking her about her early career ambitions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SUNI WILLIAMS: Yeah, so I wanted to be a veterinarian and...

SAGAL: Whoa, you screwed that up.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I sort of went the wrong turn and actually didn't get into the universities that I wanted to do that and ended up under the influence or guidance of my older brother to go to the Naval Academy.

SAGAL: Wait a minute. You went to the U.S. Naval Academy as, like, a backup school?

WILLIAMS: Well, my brother said they like to camp and we camped when we were kids. And so he said I'd like it. And I did.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Really?

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

SAGAL: You went to the U.S. Naval Academy 'cause you like to go camping.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

SAGAL: You know, they're generally on boats, the Navy.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I missed that point, a little bit.

SAGAL: Really? OK.

WILLIAMS: So, I finished there and was trying to figure out what to do - at the end of that, we get to pick by our class standing. And I was not the top, not the end, somewhere in the middle. And I wanted to be a diver because I was a swimmer. I didn't get that billet but, at the same time, "Top Gun" came out so I thought I would be Tom Cruise and go fly airplanes. So, that was my goal.

SAGAL: Really?

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

POUNDSTONE: So we owe it to Tom Cruise that you're here with us?

SAGAL: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: I never thought about that way, but I guess so.

SAGAL: Hey, Tom.

POUNDSTONE: Yeah, thank you, Tom Cruise.

SAGAL: So, seriously did - you were like, OK, send me to Miramar I want to be a fighter pilot?

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

SAGAL: And what happened?

WILLIAMS: Well, I didn't get to do that.

SAGAL: Oh.

WILLIAMS: I flew helicopters, which actually is the second best view of the earth. The first best view is, I think, a little bit higher.

SAGAL: Right. So, now you're like - you're a helicopter pilot, flying combat helicopters – right? - off of aircraft carriers thinking, I wonder if it's too late for veterinary school, but hey.

WILLIAMS: I was. So I was sort of curious about how helicopters work because it was sort of a mystery to me. You know, you stick the key in or whatever, you raise the collective and the cyclic and you start to fly.

POUNDSTONE: Sure.

WILLIAMS: And like, how the heck does this thing work? So I wanted to learn how to figure that out so I went to test pilot school. And that's the first time I actually came down here to Johnson Space Center and met real astronauts and learned what they did and thought that would be pretty cool, too - almost cooler than Tom Cruise - so, what the heck?

SAGAL: This sounds very accidental.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: That's life, yeah.

SAGAL: You know, I mean, a lot of people are like, well, I did this, and I did that, and I ended up in a trailer with three kids.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: You ended up on the International Space Station, which you have been to how many times?

WILLIAMS: Two times.

SAGAL: Only twice?

WILLIAMS: Only twice.

SAGAL: Twice, OK.

WILLIAMS: But for long times each time.

SAGAL: But you still hold the record, I am told, for the longest spacewalk.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, well, the number of them.

SAGAL: Most number of spacewalks.

WILLIAMS: For women.

SAGAL: For women.

POUNDSTONE: So...

WILLIAMS: As my husband would say, not bad for a girl.

SAGAL: Not bad for a girl. And did you have to do so many 'cause you kept forgetting things outside?

WILLIAMS: I hope not.

SAGAL: No, it's like, oh, I left my keys outside, I got to...

(LAUGHTER)

ALONZO BODDEN: Did you ever get to do any experiments involving an animal and finally say I got this veterinary thing done?

WILLIAMS: Well, as a matter of fact, we had spiders - Egyptian jumping spiders - up there.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: That sounds like a horror movie.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, they were scary, actually. They've got eight eyes on their heads.

POUNDSTONE: Ew.

WILLIAMS: And they do everything by sight. So, as soon as you look at their little container, they look up at you like this. It's a little nerve-racking.

SAGAL: So what - why did you...

POUNDSTONE: Yeah, what were they there for?

WILLIAMS: Actually, it was an experiment suggested by a kid who lives in Egypt, and he knows about these types of spiders and he wanted to see if they would adapt. Because they're like Spiderman - when they see their prey, they jump at it, and they sort of let their little string down and grab the thing and eat it. And so, in space you can't really jump...

SAGAL: That's just what Spiderman does.

WILLIAMS: Well, they figured it out but it took a little while. Initially they were a little bit frustrated and they were running around.

SAGAL: I just imagine these spiders going (yelling).

POUNDSTONE: So, what were they frustrated by? Their web didn't go where they wanted it to because of the - a lack of gravity?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, exactly. So they were trying to jump, but if you, like, jump in space, you're just going to jump up.

POUNDSTONE: Even if I were a spider, I'd be like wow!

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Exactly.

SAGAL: Does it ever get either claustrophobic or boring spending that much time in a big tube like that?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely not. There's just so many cool things to do. We're busy. When I was up on my first flight, we were really putting it together. So, I was essentially a construction worker. On the second flight, we were doing a lot of science experiments, and we've got a really cool window called the cupola. It's a big circular window with six panes around, sort of at angles so you can see the Earth, you can see the edge of the Earth, you can go out - look out into the universe. It's pretty spectacular.

POUNDSTONE: Do you think they might need a comic?

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

POUNDSTONE: Oh, man, that would be the greatest. You know, I don't even want to come back. You can just let me go.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: What do you do for entertainment?

WILLIAMS: So we try to keep it a normal day while we're up in space. You know, you don't want to change your time cycle too much, so we just keep it normal. And so about 5 or 6 o'clock at night, after we finish working, we knock it off by having prerecorded shows that we watch sometimes through the computer while we're eating dinner.

POUNDSTONE: Your first night in space, could you - how could you even sleep? What do you mean keep it normal?

JOBRANI: They're not going to take you if you're going to be like this.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Paula, you need to calm down. You need to be saying, that sounds great. Wow, I really have no problems with you at all.

POUNDSTONE: Yeah, yeah. Hey, let’s watch TV over dinner and go to bed early. What do you say?

SAGAL: Yeah, there you go.

WILLIAMS: It's not like we're going out anywhere.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Well, Suni, we have invited you here to play a game we're calling...

KURTIS: First Month Is Free.

SAGAL: You have spent a lot of time in outer space. So we thought we'd ask you three questions about storage space.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Answer two of these three questions about the wonderful, fascinating world of rental storage units, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - Carl Kasell's voice. Bill, who is Suni playing for?

KURTIS: Wilson Chang of Houston, Texas.

SAGAL: There you go.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: He's out there somewhere. Here's your first question. As you probably know, people often bid for the contents of abandoned storage units, sight unseen. Well, one unit bought at auction near here in Houston turned out to contain what? A, a NASA space rocket, B, 20 years' worth of ZZ Top's beard trimmings; or C, 4,000 never-used Houston Oilers Super Bowl champion T-shirts.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Ouch, ouch.

KURTIS: Never used.

WILLIAMS: Wow. Wow. C?

SAGAL: So you're going to go for C, the Houston Oilers Super Bowl champion T-shirts?

(APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: Yes, yes, C.

SAGAL: You are a hopeful crowd. No, it was actually the NASA space rocket.

WILLIAMS: Get out of here. What are we doing?

SAGAL: They found a Delta relay rocket from the '60s that had just been put in there and forgotten about.

WILLIAMS: Oh, God (laughter).

BODDEN: We really don't...

SAGAL: All right.

BODDEN: You guys don't keep track of those?

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right, next question. During an episode of the show "Storage Hunters," the show's hosts opened up a storage locker to find that the previous owner had left what behind? A, comedian Dennis Miller, B, another storage locker containing another even smaller storage locker, or C, a swarm of angry bees that the previous owner had put there for safekeeping.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBERS: (Making buzzing sound).

WILLIAMS: You think so?

SAGAL: They're either buzzing or their applauding in a very strange, regional way.

WILLIAMS: C.

SAGAL: So you're going to go for the bees. Yes, it was the bees.

WILLIAMS: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: We don't know why…

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: We don’t know why the prior owner had decided to put a beehive in there, but the bees really didn't appreciate it based on their attitude when the door was opened. All right, last one. A man in North Carolina is being sued by the previous owner of a storage locker he purchased at auction. The previous owner says he may have given up the storage locker, but he wants his what back? A, his groove, B, his baby back, or C, his leg.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Going for C again.

SAGAL: Yes, it was his leg.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL, APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: A man named John Wood was keeping his amputated leg in a barbecue smoker, as one does, so he could be buried with it someday, but the new owner realized the potential of having a human leg in a barbecue smoker and started charging adults three dollars and children just one dollar to look at it and didn't want to give the leg back.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Bill, how did Suni do on our quiz?

KURTIS: Suni proving why she's called Suni. She's a winner - two out of three.

SAGAL: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Suni Williams is a pilot and astronaut who has spent a total of 322 days in orbit on the International Space Station and one of the people who's paving the way for NASA's journey to Mars and beyond. Suni Williams, thank you so much for being on WAIT WAIT… DON'T TELL ME. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.