Hands that rock the space missions at ISRO

women-isro V.R. Lalithambika and Anuradha T.K.

Whether or not India's first set of Ganganauts includes a woman, is something that we will learn in the months to come. Women, however, are certainly steering India's space ambitions.

Chandrayaan-2 project director is M. Vanitha, the first woman in such a capacity at the Indian space research organisation. Chandrayaan-2 is a very prestigious mission for India, as it hopes to probe the south pole of the moon, an area of the lunar surface which so far has not been explored. A design engineer by training, Vanitha was awarded best woman scientist in 2006 by the Astronautical Society of India. The role of a project director is like that of a chief executive, and requires not just technical understanding, but a lot of co-ordination skills.

ISRO had, just months earlier, appointed V.R. Lalithambika as head of the new directorate of Human Space Flight at its headquarters. It recently appointed Unnikrishnan Nair as head of the Human Space Flight centre which will soon be established. While Nair's job is to head a technical unit, Lalithambika's is to define the objective of the entire project, as well to identify the objectives for each of the three flights which will be undertaken under the project Gaganyaan.

Women have for years, helmed key centres and projects at the space agency—less in order to show the world its gender sensitivity, but more as they were the appropriate people for the job. Anuradha T.K., one of the most senior women scientists at the organisation, is programme director for specialised communication satellites, another prestigious initiative at ISRO, given that its Navic constellation is operational now.

During the launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), in 2013-14 (launch and insertion into Martian orbit), the media limelight came on the women scientists in the team, including A. Indira who was then senior general manager of the Mission Control Centre. It inspired filmmaker Radha Bharadwaj to make a film on the subject. Titled Space MOMs, it is due for release soon.