Meet the happy space women

U.N. Vasantha Kumari, Subhalakshmi Krishnamoorthy and T.S. Shoba diligently keep a low profile, happy to be hidden figures outside their space. Just as many others in their charmed sphere.

They are the silent, significant forces behind the satellites that are placed in space by the Indian Space Research Organisation.

Some of these engineers and scientists joined the space agency more than 25 years back. They moved into different streams but the stories are similar: gruelling hours, late shifts often until the wee hours, balancing official travels with a baby and family at home. It certainly was not something that you anticipated of a "dream government job".

Currently, Hidden figures, the Hollywood film about NASA's undermined women scientists, is showing in the city. These space scientists say they have had neither the time to watch it nor do they believe they been discriminated against as women.

Indeed. Some ten spacecraft are in the making at ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC) in Bengaluru and none of them can be rolled out of there for launch without the green flag from Vasantha Kumari.

Vasantha, the university rank holder and a serial 100% in maths from National college, Basavanagudi, is Group Director - Spacecraft Checkout Group and Associate Project Director for next year's high-resolution Cartosat-3 series of Earth observation satellites. Her 100-plus team is geared up for rigorous testing as ISRO trots up its pace.

As a test engineer she often had to escort the ISRO satellites to Russia and French Guiana for launch. Before one such trip came her gut-pulling moment: her daughter suddenly said she wished to be rather a satellite, so that her mother was always with her.

"At ISRO, gender has never been an issue. It is only your merit, skill and talent that count here. Leaders like U.R.Rao have set very high professional benchmarks for us" that goes beyond a scientist's gender, she says. The awards keep coming. She still bothers that one day in Russia, someone ridiculed India's nascent space capability.

As a student of electronics and communications engineering in Thiruvananthapuram, Subhalakshmi Krishnamoorthy fantasised about working in the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), the rocket hub in her home city. But she landed a job in the sensors division of ISRO’s Laboratory for Electro-Optics Systems in Bengaluru.

This scientist - who manages Carnatic vocal concerts and cuts albums when free - is Group Head, Vision & Sun sensor Electronics Group, which provides electro optic sensors that are the ears and eyes of all ISRO satellites Some 35 satellite projects are behind her, including the Mars Orbiter Mission. She is the principal investigator for a science instrument that will be put on Aditya, ISRO’s forthcoming mission to Sun.

Shoba, a polymer technologist from Thiruvananthapuram, could have been a nuclear scientist. After a stint at VSSC, she entered ISRO's marketing arm, Antrix Corporation, over two decades back and is now its Executive Director. She has seen it through its thick and thin and is game for the evolving market demands of broadcasting and technology transfer. “Men or women, we face the same challenges and there are no concessions or distinction for being women,” she says.

ISRO's current scientific and technical pool of 12,300 employees has a relatively low number of 1,262 women. Geeta Varadan, who worked in critical ISRO projects and retired a few years back as the director of National Remote Sensing Centre, remains the lone woman to head an ISRO centre. Anuradha T.K. (GSAT-12 in 2011) and P.Valarmathi (RISAT-1 in 2012) were satellite project directors.

This is bound to change, believes Subhalakshmi, as "technically qualified women are increasingly joining ISRO.”

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 9:52:14 AM |

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