Women have made significant contributions to space missions across the globe since the early days of space exploration. While the field was initially dominated by men, women have played crucial roles in various aspects of space missions, including engineering, science, space travel and leadership. In space travel hardly 10% of the astronauts who travelled to space are female, only 67 women out of 585 astronauts in history. The Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova is the first woman who made travel into space. She piloted the Vostok 6 spacecraft, orbiting the Earth 48 times during her mission on 16th June 1963. Even though ISRO is planning to send a woman astronaut in its Gaganyaan mission. But a few astronauts of Indian origin like Kalpana Chawla ,Sunita Williams, and Sirisha Bandla had made visits to space. Kalpana Chawla was the first woman of Indian origin in space. She was an astronaut who flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997 and again in 2003. Unfortunately, she lost her life in the Columbia disaster in 2003, but her achievements continue to inspire aspiring astronauts in India.
However, many Indian women have contributed considerably to the success of various space programmes of ISRO. The latest is Nigar Shaji, Project Director for Aditya-L1 mission, India’s mission to the Sun. In our lunar mission also women scientists played a key role. After the successful landing of Chandrayaan-3 Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with female scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and acknowledged their contributions in the success of the mission. “The women scientists of this mission have played a crucial role in ensuring its success. Without their contribution, this achievement was just not possible. They will inspire generations to come,” Modi said. In honour of the female scientists who contributed to the Chandrayaan-3 mission, he also decided to give the landing site on the moon the name “Shiv Shakti,” which is taken from the concept of feminine force in Hindu mythology. More than 100 women scientists played a significant role in the success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission itself. At the heart of this triumph is Kalpana Kalahasti, the deputy project director of Chandrayaan-3. She was also part of the Chandrayaan -2 mission. Kalahasti is a satellite specialist and she has overseen sophisticated imaging devices that have enabled ISRO to capture high-resolution images of Earth’s surface. Similarly, Reema Ghosh is a robotics specialist who worked on the development of the “Pragyan” rover that is has successfully completed its operation on the lunar surface.
Ritu Karidhal, a senior scientist and aerospace engineer, who has been part of many important space missions, including Chandrayaan-2 where she was project director, and the Mars orbiter mission “Mangalyaan”. Popularly known as the “rocket woman” of India, Karidhal also received the “ISRO Young Scientist Award”.
Another woman scientist, Nidhi Porwal, has spent the past four years working tirelessly to ensure the success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) prides itself on having a highly capable and experienced group of female scientists. Anuradha TK, who joined the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 1982, achieved a significant milestone by becoming the first woman to assume the role of Satellite Project Director. The individual in question had a leading role in the successful deployment of three communication satellites, specifically GSAT-9, GSAT-17, and GSAT-18.
Vanitha Muthayya assumed the role of the principal investigator for the Chandrayaan-2 initiative, a lunar exploration endeavour that encountered obstacles during its descent phase. Additionally, she assumed the position of deputy project director for other satellites, namely Cartosat-1, Oceansat-2, Megha-Tropiques, and played a crucial role as a team member for the Mangalyaan mission.
Nandini Harinath, an experienced aerospace engineer, has made significant contributions to more than 14 space missions throughout her twenty-year tenure with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). In the year 2014, she undertook the position of deputy operations director for the Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan), an endeavour that effectively achieved the insertion of a spacecraft into the orbit of the planet Mars. Physicist Moumita Dutta played an instrumental role in the Mars Orbiter Mission and has been a part of projects like HySat and Chandrayaan-1. Lalithambika, the director of the Gaganyaan, Indian Human Spaceflight Programme, has contributed her expertise to over 100 missions at ISRO.
In a patriarchal system society where even educated women find it difficult to come out of the ‘societal predispositions’ the success of women in space research will be an inspiration for generations to come. There are many highly qualified women who find it difficult to come out of the so-called family/societal norms. Even today there are many men who don’t allow their spouse to work in certain designated areas, even in academics or in research. This is badly affecting the scientific productivity of Indian science. There is no need for any special privileges for women in science, but their contributions should be showcased at par with their male counterparts. In spite of their relentless pursuit for the development of our nation and research hardly very few women are noticed in the press meet of ISRO, be it success or failure. In recent times women have been adoring the top positions in various National Institutes and in higher education centres. Despite this, more needs to be done to increase the participation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. The future generation can come out only from a female, that’s the rule of nature. Space technology is the future for humanity and we can hope soon we will have a woman to head our space research and missions.
(The author is an adjunct faculty at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore)