The Rocket Women of India
Isro Is no male preserve, 54 women scientists and engineers involved in the Chandrayan 3 mission
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has taken India to great heights, its latest achievement being a soft landing at the south pole of the moon, a world record. But the organisation has also uplifted women, signalling a social revolution in conservative India where the home is thought to be the ideal place for women.
News agency IANS reported that as many as 54 women scientists and engineers were involved in the “Chandrayaan 3” project. An earlier BBC report quoted a lady Mission Director, Anuradha T. K., as saying that anywhere between 20 to 25% of ISRO’s 16,000 employees are women.
And at least eight women have been at the helm of projects as Directors and Deputy Directors, including in those projects sending probes to the moon and Mars.
These women are fondly described as the “Rocket Women of India”. Director-level women have put in 30-plus years participating in multiple missions. By the way women have come up in ISRO since the 1980s, it is apparent that gender equality has been one of its defining values.
A notable characteristic of the women in ISRO, is that, like the men, they appear to be from the non-anglicized section of the Indian middle class, from the small provincial towns, which is the hard-core of the middle class in India.
And again typically, all of them get support from their immediate family and husbands who put up with their unconventional working hours and long absences from home during missions.
Take for instance, B. P. Dakshayani who played a key role in the Mars mission “Mangalyaan” in 2013. She is from Bhadravathi, a small town in Karnataka. Daughter of an accountant and a homemaker mother, Dakshayani studied in a local school and college, graduating with a B.Sc.
She wanted to study engineering thereafter, but society thought that engineering was a no-go zone for women. With her father’s support she did pursue engineering and joined ISRO. Space engineering was a totally new field for her but she worked hard to grasp its intricacies.
Ritu Karidhal Srivastava is another “Rocket Woman” from a middle class family. A Physics graduate of Lucknow University, Karidhal went to Bengaluru to obtain a Master’s in aerospace engineering from the Indian Institute of Science Bengaluru.
Joining ISRO in 1997, Karidhal won the ISRO Young Scientist Award in 2007 from the former Indian President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. She played a key role in the development of India's Mars Orbiter Mission, “Mangalyaan” as its Deputy Operations Director.
“Mangalyaan” was a landmark in Indian space history because, with it, India became the fourth country in the world to reach Mars. It was conceived and launched in 18 months’ time at a low cost of INR 450 crore (US$ 54.5 million). Ritu’s job was to conceptualise and execute the craft's onward “autonomy system”.
Subsequently, she became Mission Director in the “Chandrayaan 2” project which reached the moon alright, but failed to achieve the intended soft landing on its surface.
Ritu Karidhal told the media that even as a schoolgirl in Lucknow, she had a clear idea of what she wanted to do in her life, explore the vastness of Space. She used to collect newspaper cuttings about NASA and ISRO. Her arrival in ISRO in 1997 thus seemed predestined.
Muthayya Vanitha, was Project Director in the “Chandrayaan” project. Muthayya is from Chennai and is an electronics and communications engineer. As Project Director she supervised the development of hardware.
She was the Deputy Project Director for data systems for satellite projects like Cartosat-1, Oceansat-2, and Megha-Tropiques satellites. In 2006, she received the Best Woman Scientist award of the Astronomical Society of India.
Tessy Thomas, known as a “Missile Woman” was born in 1963 in Alappuzha, a small town in Kerala. She became the first woman engineer to head a missile project in India, having been Project Director of the Agni-IV missile program at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
N. Valarmathi is from Ariyalur a small town in Tamil Nadu. She went to the local Nirmala Girls Higher Secondary School, graduated from Government College of Technology, Coimbatore and got a Masters in Electronics and Communications from Anna University Chennai.
She has been working with the ISRO since 1984 and involved in any missions including Insat 2A, IRS IC, IRS ID, TES. She became Project Director of India's first indigenously-developed Radar Imaging Satellite RISAT-1, which was launched successfully on 2012.
Moumita Dutta from Kolkata was a member of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). In 2006, she joined the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad and she has been involved in various projects such as HySAT, Chandrayaan 1 and the Mars Orbiter Mission. Dutta was awarded the ISRO Team of Excellence Award for her contribution to the “Mangalyaan” mission.
Anuradha T. K. was the first woman to be a Satellite Project Director at ISRO. Born in Bengaluru in 1961, she completed her engineering in electronics from the University Visvesvaraya College of Engineering in Bengaluru. She specialises in communication satellites and is one of the senior-most female scientists at ISRO.
She was the project director of India's first indigenously-developed Radar Imaging Satellite, RISAT-1. She was also involved in various missions like INSAT-2A, IRS-1C, IRS.
Anuradha has won several awards including the Space Gold Medal award, Suman Award, ASI-ISRO Merit Award, and the ISRO team award.
She told BBC, “During a satellite launch, scientists, whether men or women, don't think of going home at all. At work during missions, they may have to spend sleepless nights. Problems encountered have to be solved as quickly as possible.
“There is no gender discrimination in ISRO. Recruitment and promotional policies are all dependent on what we know and what we contribute. Sometimes I forget that I'm a woman here. You don't get any special treatment because you're a woman, you're also not discriminated against because you're a woman. You're treated as an equal.”
Nandini Harinath was Mission Designer, Project Manager and Deputy Operations Director on the Mars Orbiter Mission. In fact, she has been part of all the missions undertaken in the last two decades.
Harinath told the media that her first exposure to science was “Star Trek” on television. “My mother is a maths teacher and my father is an engineer with a great liking for physics. As a family, we were all so fond of Star Trek and science fiction and we would sit together and watch it on TV."
Of course, at the time, she never thought of becoming a space scientist. For her, ISRO "just happened". It was the only organisation she had applied for. “And there's been no looking back," she said.
Minal Sampath is a Systems Engineer hailing from Rajkot, a small town in Gujarat. Minal was a mechanical engineer in the Mars missions. She won the Young Scientist Merit Award in 2007 from ISRO.
V. R. Lalithambika, a Control Systems engineer, hails from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. Born in 1962, she had seen rockets being launched from the Thumba rocket station nearby. She began her career as a College lecturer but became a full-time scientist at ISRO soon enough.
She specialised in Advanced Launcher Technologies and played a key role in building the country's rocket program. In her 30 years in ISRO she had served as the Director of the “Gaganyaan” human space flight program.
Lalithambika was Project Director of India's first indigenously-developed Radar Imaging Satellite, RISAT-1 and was also involved in various missions like INSAT-2A, and IRS-1C.