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Astronaut takes a dip in aquarium’s Giant Ocean Tank

Sunita Williams swam through the tank.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

With alien creatures and unidentified swimming objects surrounding her, astronaut Sunita Williams twirled, dipped, and glided through the New England Aquarium’s Giant Ocean Tank Thursday.

Williams, a 49-year-old graduate of Needham High School, has been an astronaut with NASA since 1998 and has spent 322 days in space on various missions.

Aquarium guests — mostly families —were awed by Williams as she meandered through the water. She stroked the backs of sea turtles and feeding fish, bobbed up to the surface, and back down to the bottom of the tank, a steady stream of bubbles trailing behind her.

Williams is plenty familiar with diving. Astronauts train in a “neutral-buoyancy lab” to simulate the weightlessness of space.

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In a talk after her underwater exploits, Williams said she found space to be emptier than the aquarium tank.

“It was really cool,” she said. “It was a little crowded. Space is a little bit more open. But I felt very much like I was in their world.”

After drying off, Williams fielded questions from curious onlookers lining the platform that runs along the top of the tank.

She said that diving and spacewalking are similar in some ways.

“A diving suit essentially does the same thing as an astronaut suit,” she said. “It provides oxygen and keeps us warm, and protects us from the elements.”

Recounting her journey from Needham High School student to astronaut, Williams said she once dreamed of becoming a veterinarian.

Williams joined the Navy after high school, and did extensive pilot and diver training before eventually joining the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

She also used to be a competitive swimmer.

“It’s home here,” she said. “Like in space, you feel like a little part of something much bigger.” She said that feeling applied both to being back in her hometown — and being in the tank.

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Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com.