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Two women steer moon mission: a ‘simple girl’ and an award winner

Author: Johnson T A
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: June 14, 2019
URL:      https://indianexpress.com/article/technology/science/two-women-steer-moon-mission-a-simple-girl-and-an-award-winner-chandrayaan-2-isro-5779785/

“TO SHOW how challenging it was to achieve the correct cruise path, would be like going outside and hitting a golf ball towards a hole located in Los Angeles. The ball has to go straight into the hole and to make it more challenging, the hole is moving.”

That was ISRO scientist Ritu Karidhal describing India’s successful 2013-14 space mission to Mars in a TedxGateway talk. Today, Karidhal is one of the two women at the helm of Chandrayaan 2, India’s second foray to the moon that is preparing for launch on July 15. The other is Muthayya Vanitha.

Chandrayaan 2 will attempt a first-ever soft landing for India on the lunar surface. And the two senior women space scientists, both in their 40s, will be in charge of the mission’s main components: Project oversight and the crucial final phase of landing.

Karidhal, who holds a Master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and was a deputy operations manager for the Mars mission, is the mission director for Chandrayaan 2. Vanitha, an electronics systems engineer, is project director.

For both women, who have been with ISRO for close to two decades and were involved in launches or sub-system development for satellites, Chandrayaan 2 will mark a historic achievement.

“It is the first time for a planetary mission where women are in charge. We have had women project directors for the launch of communication and other satellites,” ISRO chairman K Sivan said after announcing the launch date for Chandrayaan 2.

According to former ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan, a project director “is responsible for the project from the start — getting the whole systems configured, reviewed, implemented and assembled, and become a single-point authority for the total project”.

A mission director, he said, “handles whatever has to be done on the spacecraft from the time it is inserted into orbit — initial operations, raising the orbit, taking all contingency actions when required’’. “The project director is involved for years and the mission director comes into the picture once the satellite is injected into orbit,’’ he said.

Chandrayaan 2 — an improvement on Chandrayaan 1 of 2008 — has been in the pipeline since 2012-13 and has seen multiple project directors before the appointment of Vanitha around 18 months ago.

The exit of M Annadurai, project director for Chandrayaan 1 and Chandrayaan 2, and G Nagesh his deputy, following promotions, saw Vanitha’s elevation from the position of associate director.

“From a project point of view, this will be the first time that she is in charge. But she was in charge of another domain — of making data handling systems for all our remote-sensing satellites. It is definitely a big turning point for her. It is not something new for ISRO, however, to have women in charge of projects,” said Annadurai.

A winner of the best woman scientist award of the Astronautical Society of India in 2006, Vanitha has been the deputy project director for data systems for Cartosat-1, Oceansat-2 and Megha-Tropiques remote-sensing satellites. She also headed the telemetry and telecommand divisions at the digital systems group at the satellite centre — now the UR Rao Space Centre.

This year, Vanitha was featured by the international science journal Nature among its list of scientists to watch in 2019. “A big moment for this engineer could come in early 2019, as India plans to land a rover near the lunar south pole and explore that region for the first time,’’ the journal stated.

Karidhal, who joined ISRO in 1997, was the recipient of ISRO’s maiden Young Scientist Award in 2007. An avid collector of material on space as a youngster, she was a key scientist involved in ensuring that the Mangalyaan satellite launched on November 5, 2013, and reached the orbit of Mars on September 24, 2014.

“Being the deputy operation director, it was mine and my team’s responsibility to ensure that the entire process happens on its set configuration,’’ Karidhal said in one of her Ted talks. “This was the first Indian satellite to have full-scale, on-board autonomy, which means having the capability to rectify its own faults and problems. And, most importantly, female scientists worked shoulder to shoulder along with male scientists to make this mission a success,’’ she said.

“I was a simple girl from Lucknow, who was curious to know about outer space and who got a chance to be associated with the Mars Mission… Without the support of family members, women at least cannot keep up with their objectives and goals. When your partner supports you, then you can overcome complexities and problems,’’ she said in a talk a couple of years ago.

“Along with the mission director, she was one of the persons identified to carry out operations of the satellite. Automation on board was done up for the first time in the Mars mission and she assisted in these operations,’’ Mars mission director Kesava Raju said.

The challenge for the Chandrayaan 2 mission is considered formidable given the fact that only three countries — the US, Russia and China — have managed soft landings.

The 15 minutes that the Chandrayaan 2 lander will take to descend onto the surface of the moon, Sivan said, “are going to be the most terrifying for all of us”. “The whole of ISRO is contributing and you cannot say only few are involved… and around 30 per cent of people in the mission are women.”
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