Saturday, February 18, 2017 9:29 am
Two years ago, as Indian scientists successfully put a satellite into orbit around Mars, a photograph that went viral showed women dressed in gorgeous saris with flowers in their hair celebrating at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) in the southern city of Bangalore.
It was reported that the ecstatic women were scientists and the photograph challenged the stereotype that rocket science in India was a male preserve.
Isro later clarified that the celebrating women were administrative staff, but it went on to add that there indeed were several women scientists who had worked on the mission and were in the control room at the time of the launch.
The BBC’s Geeta Pandey recently travelled to Bangalore to meet some of the women who have taken India into space.
As a little girl growing up in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, Ms Karidhal 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”.
A student of science who loved physics and maths, she scoured the daily newspapers for information about Nasa and Isro projects, collected news clippings, and read every little detail about anything related to space science.
After getting her postgraduate degree, “I applied for a job at Isro and that’s how I became a space scientist”, she says.
It’s now been 18 years and Ms Karidhal has worked on several projects at Isro, including the prestigious Mars mission, which has thrust her and her colleagues into the limelight.
The mission began in April 2012 and the scientists only had 18 months to capture Mars.
“It was a very small window, so the big challenge was to realise the project in that time. We had no heritage of interplanetary missions, so we had a lot to do in that short period.”
Although women scientists were part of the mission right from the time of conception, Ms Karidhal says its success was due to the team effort.
“We used to sit with the engineers, everyone would brainstorm, irrespective of the time, we often worked the weekends.
A mother of two young children, Ms Karidhal 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”.
“At the time, my son was 11 and my daughter was five. We had to multi-task, manage time better, but I think that even when I was exhausted at work, I’d go home and see my children and spend time enjoying with them, and I’d feel better and they would also like it.”
It’s often said that “men are from Mars while women are from Venus” but following the success of the Mars mission, many dubbed India’s women scientists the “women from Mars”.
“I am a woman from earth, an Indian woman who got an amazing opportunity,” Ms Karidhal says.
“Mars mission was an achievement, but we need to do a lot more. The country needs a lot more from us so that the benefit reaches the last man.”
And who better than women scientists to do that?
Ms Harinath’s 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 and 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 and 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.”
Being part of the Mars mission was a high point of her life.
“It was very important for India, not just for Isro. It’s put us on a different pedestal, foreign countries are looking at us for collaborations and the importance and attention we got was justified.
“It was also the first time 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, laughing. “But now the way people look at you, it’s very different. People recognise you for being a scientist. And I’m enjoying it thoroughly.”
Ms Harinath says she takes “immense pride” in Mangalyan and was “really thrilled” to see it’s photograph on the new 2,000 rupee notes.
But it was not an easy assignment and the work 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 hours.
“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 it was coming up with quick solutions, innovation that was brought in that was key.”
To make matters worse, 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 4am 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 is doing really well so I think it was all worth the effort.”
I ask if we can call her the “woman from Mars”.
“I want to be grounded to earth. It’s important to remain so, to bring out the best in a person,” she says.
“The Mars mission was a huge achievement, but that’s past now. We need to look into the future, to see what more we can do. We have the entire cosmic neighbourhood waiting to be explored. There are so many planets, so it’s time to venture out.”
For this senior-most woman officer at Isro, the sky is the limit – she specialises in sending communication satellites into space that sit at least 36,000km from the earth’s centre.
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 the imagination. I wrote a poem on a man landing on the moon in Kannada, my native language.”
Considered a role model by other women scientists at Isro, Ms 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.”
When she 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% of Isro’s over 16,000 employees are women and we no longer feel special,” she laughs.
At Isro, she says, gender is not an issue and the 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.”
She laughs at the suggestion that her colleagues consider her an inspiration, but agrees that having more women in workplace can be a motivating factor for other women.
“Once girls see that there are lots of women in the space programme, they also get motivated, they think if she can do it, so can they.”
Although the numbers of women staff has been consistently growing 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 says.
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 my parents-in-law were always cooperative, so I didn’t have to worry much about my children.
“And I owe my success to the arrangements I 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.”