India's rocket women
Think Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), think Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, G. Madhavan Nair, Rodham Narsimha and a host of geniuses. They build on an earlier generation of scientists who worked to push India’s space frontiers, men who came to define the contours of the country’s scientific rediscovery — C.V. Raman and Meghnad Saha.
But times are changing. Two years ago, as Indian scientists successfully put a satellite Mangalyaan into orbit around Mars, history was scripted. Away from the dour image of spectacled and formally suited nerds working on complex diagrams and theories, this snapshot of Indian scientists, who achieved the feat in a record 15 months, was warmly refreshing — women dressed in resplendent saris, chatting gaily as they went about their work.
Given that they have to work hard at home as well, faced as they are with societal discrimination, the Isro story remains a landmark not just for Indian science, but the women behind it.
Ritu Karidhal — from sky watcher to scientist
Ritu Karidhal is the Lucknow-born deputy operations director of the Mars Orbiter Mission. As a little girl growing up in Lucknow, Ritu was an avid sky watcher who “used to wonder about the size of the moon, why it increases and decreases. I wanted to know what lay behind the dark spaces,” she says.
A student of science, she scoured newspapers for information about Nasa and Isro projects, collected news clippings and read every detail about anything related to space science. After getting her PG degree, “I applied for a job at Isro and that’s how I became a space scientist,” she says.
Eighteen years later, she has worked on several projects at Isro, including the prestigious Mars mission, which thrust her and her colleagues into the limelight. She told a news portal in 2015 that she had to conceptualise and ensure the execution of the craft’s autonomous brain so that it could function on its own and even overcome malfunctions.
In the final campaign period of 10 months leading to the launch, she would sit with her kids for their homework and then resume her work between midnight and 4 am. Some stamina and perseverance that.
Although women scientists were part of the mission right from the time of conception, Ritu says its success was due to the great team effort. “We used to sit with the engineers, irrespective of the time, we often worked the weekends,” she reminisces.
A mother of two young children, she says it was not easy to maintain a work-life balance, but “I got the support I needed from my family, my husband and my siblings.”
Nandini Harinath — An ardent Star Trek and sci-fi fan
Another such peerless example is the deputy director operations, Nandini Harinath, missions system leader Isro of Nisar, a joint Nasa-Isro satellite being developed for launch in 2020.
Her first exposure to science came from Star Trek, the iconic American science fiction entertainment, which had the world in its thrall when it first hit TV screens decades ago. Says Harinath, “My mother is a maths teacher and my father is an engineer with great liking for physics and as a family we were all so fond of Star Trek and science fiction that we would sit together and watch it on TV.”
At that time, thoughts of becoming a space scientist never crossed her mind. For her, Isro “just happened”. “It was the first job I applied for and I got through. It’s been 20 years now and there’s been no looking back,” Harinath says with pride.
Being part of the Mars mission was the high point of her life. “It was very important for India, not just for Isro. It put us on a different pedestal, foreign countries are looking at us for collaborations and the importance and attention we got was justified,” she points out.
The Isro scientist is candid enough to admit that women have to put in “twice the effort to stand on a same platform as men.” Speaking at an event in 2015, Harinath said that there was no gender bias in Isro, and one of the reasons that women constituted just 24 per cent of the technical workforce is that fewer numbers of women sought jobs there in the 1990s when she joined the organisation.
Now, she says, with equal numbers coming to join, the scenario would change drastically, as it should. Harinath points to one key issue confronting women not just in India, but even in developed countries — the cultural stereotype that women are uncomfortable with maths, science and computing.
In her remarks, she also cited a McKinsey study showing that men were often promoted on the basis of their potential, while women were judged on their actual accomplishments.
There was something else. “It was also the first time that Isro allowed the public to look at what was happening inside. We were on social media, we had our own Facebook page and the world took notice. I feel proud of our achievement. Sometimes, I feel honoured and flattered, but sometimes I’m also embarrassed,” she says. Fame, it appears, is something that even scientists like. “Now the way people look at you, it’s very different. People recognise you for being a scientist. And I’m enjoying it thoroughly.”
Harinath says she takes “immense pride” in Mangalyaan and was “really thrilled” to see its photograph on the new '2,000 notes. But it was not an easy assignment and working days were long. In the beginning, the scientists worked about 10 hours a day, but as the launch date came closer, it went up to 12 to 14 bruising hours of work. At the time of the actual launch, they barely left office.
“During the launch, I don’t think we went home at all. We’d come in the morning, spend the day and night, probably go home for a short time the next afternoon to eat and sleep for a few hours and come back.
But for an important mission like that, which is time bound, we needed to work like that. We spent many sleepless nights. We encountered lots of problems as we progressed, in the design as well as in the mission. But coming up with quick solutions and innovations was the key,” she remembers.
Sandwiched in between were travails of the typical Indian woman; her daughter’s crucial school leaving exams fell right in the middle of the mission. “Those few months were very demanding at work and at home. It looked like a race at the time. I’d wake up at 4 am with my daughter to give her company while she studied. But now, we look back on that time with fondness. She did extremely well in her exams, scoring 100 in maths. Today, she’s in medical school and doing really well, so I think it was worth all the effort,” she says.
Anuradha T.K. — A role model for other women scientists
Isro’s senior-most woman officer, Anuradha T.K., who joined in 1982 when there were just a handful of women engineers, says that gender is no longer an issue in Isro and that there is no discrimination, just as women do not seek or get any special treatment.
As the Geosat programme director at the Isro Satellite Centre, she works in the key area of geo-synchronous satellites, which are parked in the orbit of the sun in such a way that they beam over the same part of the earth at all times. They are vital for telecom and data links.
The scientist, who has worked with Isro for the past 34 years, first thought about space when she was nine. “It was the Apollo launch, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. We had no television in those days, so I heard about it from my parents and teachers. It really ignited my imagination. I wrote a poem on a man landing on the moon in Kannada, my native language,” she recalls.
Considered a role model by other women scientists at Isro, Anuradha disagrees that women and science don’t gel. “I never liked subjects where I needed to remember a lot and science looked logical to me. I don’t believe that Indian girls think science is not meant for them and I think maths is their favourite subject,” she says, turning a well-accepted shibboleth on its head.
When Anuradha joined Isro in 1982, there were only a few women and even fewer in its engineering department. “In my batch, five-six women engineers joined Isro. We stood out and everyone knew us. Today, more than 20-25 per cent of Isro’s over 16,000 employees are women and we no longer feel special,” she points out.
At Isro, she says, gender is not an issue and recruitment and promotional policies are all dependent on “what we know and what we contribute”.
“Sometimes, I say that 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 here.”
Anuradha laughs at the suggestion that her colleagues consider her an inspiration, but agrees that having more women in the workplace can be a motivating factor for other women. Although the numbers of women staff has consistently grown at Isro, it is still way below the halfway mark.
That’s because “we are still carrying cultural loads on our backs and many women think their priorities lie elsewhere, at home,” she points out. Her advice to women who want to be rocket scientists is simple: make arrangements. “Once I had made up my mind that I needed a purposeful career where my passion lay, I created a good set up at home.
My husband and parents-in-law were always cooperative, so I didn’t have to worry much about my children,” she says. She owes her success to this ‘arrangement’ that she made. “You have to give something to get something. But life is like that. So when there was work to do, when I was needed at the office, I was here, working with passion. And when there was an absolute need for me to be at home, I was there.” Perfect harmony, you could say.
Seetha S. — A PhD in Astronomy
Happily for the country, the list of Isro women scientists seems to be growing. Seetha S, programme director at Isro, who joined the technical physics division at Isro’s Satellite Centre (ISAC) Bengaluru, after acquiring a Masters Degree in electronics at IIT, Chennai, later secured a PhD at the Indian Institute of Science in astronomy.
She believes it has been an exciting and long journey of developing scientific payloads for several satellites. “Now there are lots of opportunities for more scientific payloads, which are more complex but can provide crucial scientific data,” she explains.
What brought her to Isro? Says Seetha: “I like instrumentation and that is what brought me to Isro. I did not experience the glass ceiling, as we were allowed to grow at our own pace. There is no reason why women should not pursue a career at Isro because they have the ability to take up challenging projects, whether in electronics or designing software for different missions or carrying out simulations to test a number of systems.” Seetha has important things to look forward to. There are two key projects ahead for her team: India’s second outing to the moon, the Chandrayaan-II next year and Aditya, a satellite to study the moon.
Minal Rohit – From Ahmedabad to Bengaluru
Ditto for Minal Rohit, a scientist/engineer at the Space Applications Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad. A B.Tech in electronics and communications from the Nirma Institute of Technology, Ahmedabad, she joined Isro in Bengaluru in 1999, inspired by the live telecast of a flawless flight of the PSLV rocket as a student. Interestingly, she wanted to pursue a career either in medicine or engineering, but missed a seat in the dental course by a single mark and opted for engineering.
Moving from Bengaluru to SAC in 2004, Minal had the opportunity to work under the current Isro chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar, when he was her group director in SAC, Ahmedabad. “Looking back, it has been a wonderful experience at Isro because of discussions and support from everyone in the team,” she says.
Her current engagements include working on the meteorological payload for
Insat-3DS satellite, which will replace an ageing Insat satellite soon, and a couple of instruments for Chandrayaan-II.
B Codanayaguy — A life dedicated to ISRO
B. Codanayaguy, group head, Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC), Sriharikota Range, too falls into this August category. As a student, she read about the baby steps of Isro, in the form of the launch of APPLE satellite and the first series of rockets, Satellite Launch Vehicle.
It fired her passion to work for India’s premier space organisation. Codanayaguy joined Isro at Sriharikota Range, the country’s space port, soon after her graduation in engineering (electronics and communications) from the Government College of Technology, Coimbatore, in 1984.
She has handled many tough missions — such as the launch of Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) by calibrating a variety of instruments, which ensure that precise amount of fuel is loaded on to complex rockets. Besides, she has been part of an expanding laboratory for testing and qualifying instruments, igniters and other components for rockets at Sriharikota Range.
“We started with small amounts of hazardous chemicals, which form the fuel for solid motors of rockets, but now we handle several hundred tonnes of these chemicals. We also carry out ground tests of these motors, and use our instruments to make sure that precise amount of liquid propellant is loaded to rockets. We also calibrate instruments for the fuel used by Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV),” she adds.
A spinster, whose life has been devoted to Isro, she says that she has not encountered any gender problems at Isro. “We are treated on par and that is one of the reasons why I feel proud to work here. Of course, the work culture is unique as we have complete freedom to express our ideas and views,” she says.
Lalithambika V.R. — Winner of several awards
Lalithambika V.R., deputy director at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram, has a distinguished background. A Masters Degree in control engineering, she joined VSSC, Thiruvananthapuram in 1988 and now heads control, guidance and simulation entity at the institution.
Her list of awards is impressive. Among the many honours she has bagged are the Space Gold Medal 2001, (Astronautical society of India for excellence in launch vehicle technology), Isro individual merit award, 2010 and Isro performance excellence award, 2013.
Her group works on optimising fuel for all rockets (PSLV, GSLV, even the single flight of Reusable Launch Vehicle or RLV), the autopilot of rockets, development of software for onboard computers of all rockets and the hardware which holds the computer, as well as reviews the design of rockets.
The recent launch of 104 satellites — which has won great international acclaim bringing accolades for the country — during a single flight of PSLV, was her team’s most challenging mission as an end-to-end test of all systems.
It was carried out to ensure that the satellites are placed in the right orbit without colliding against each other. No easy task that.
The launch and flight of PSLV for this critical mission was simulated on the computer several times, including for rough weather conditions, to ensure that the mission was accomplished without a glitch. And that is the way it worked out.
“It is extremely satisfying to work in this organisation because even juniors are allowed to voice their ideas and concerns and every mission is achieved through team work so that nobody’s ego comes in the way. We have set an example for all organisations, private or government, that team work matters most to achieve the most challenging goal,” she points out.
Lalithambika has now discovered that most young people want to join Isro, to become proud members of teams working on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
There are other names too, which have cropped up in recent years. Pramodha Hegde and Anuradha Prakasham, who worked with Anuradha TK on the launch of the GSAT 12 and N. Valarmathi, who led the launch of Risat I.
Sadly, organisations like the Department of Atomic Energy (DEA) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have long clouded the achievements of ISRO. That, happily, appears to be changing.