Mangalyaan, India's maiden mission to Mars launched on 5 November 2013 by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), was a significant step in furthering the country's space ambitions. It not only made India the fourth country to successfully place a satellite into the orbit of the Red Planet, but also made ISRO the first space organisation to achieve the feat in its first attempt.
The mission had a team of about 500 people working to make it a success, but a major driving force behind the mission were the women.
In fact, about 27 percent of the key executive positions in the mission were held by women.
Of this power-packed bunch, Ritu Karidhal, Nandini Harinath, Anuradha TK, Moumita Dutta and Minal Rohit were some of the women who played a crucial role.
A book authored Minnie Vaid, called Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines, highlights the efforts of women scientists towards the success of Mangalyaan.
Who Says ‘Mars is for Men’?
According to Vaid’s book, Moumita and Minal built and tested the scientific instruments at ISRO's Space Application Centre (SAC).
Nandini and Ritu, on the other hand, handled mission operations at the UR Rao Satellite Centre (URSC), Bengaluru, in addition to calculating the spacecraft’s trajectory to Mars and designing an autonomous software system to self-correct problems.
Here's a brief profile of the ‘Rocket Women’ of India:
Deputy Operations Director for Mangalyaan.
Ritu Karidhal, who is currently helping ISRO with its second Moon mission, Chandrayaan-2, is often hailed as the 'Rocket Woman' of India for her work in the field of space.
Ritu, as shared by herself, has always had an interest in space. In an interview to the BBC, she said that she has been an avid sky-watcher ever since childhood.
“I always wanted to know what lie behind the dark skies,” she told BBC in 2016.
As a science student, she used to closely track all the developments about the Indian space agency. In fact, according to the BBC report, Ritu applied for a job in ISRO right after getting her postgraduate degree. Rest, as they say, is history.
Ritu has been with the space agency since 1997 and has worked on many missions, including the RISAT-1 and Chandrayaan-2, which is to be launched on 22 July.
Project Manager, Mission Designer & Deputy Operations Director for Mangalyaan.
Daughter of a maths teacher and an engineer, Nandini’s first introduction to science came via Star Trek.
According to a BBC interview of the women behind Mangalyaan, the job at ISRO was the first ever job she had applied for and has been with the organisation for well over 20 years.
In Minnie Vaid’s book, Nandini says that she wonders why “female scientists get so much extra attention when her male colleagues also work equally hard”.
Born in Bengaluru in 1961, Anuradha TK currently holds the position of project director at ISRO for their communication satellites.
Apart from the Mars mission, Anuradha has also worked on the launch of GSAT-12 and GSAT-10 satellites.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electronics from the University Visvesvaraya College of Engineering.
Following this, she joined ISRO in 1982 and went on to become the first female satellite project director at the space agency.
Anuradha is one of the most decorated women space scientists in India. In 2003, she won a ‘Space Gold Medal’ award by the aeronautical society of India, for her services in the field of Space sciences.
In 2011, she won the ‘Suman Sharma’ award by the National Design and Research Forum of IEI. In 2012, she won two more awards – the ASI-ISRO Merit Award for realisation of indigenous communication spacecraft and the ISRO team award for being the team lead for GSAT-12.
Project Manager for Mangalyaan
A physicist at the Space Applications Centre, Moumita Dutta is an expert in developing and testing the Optical and IR sensors/instruments/payloads for space missions. She was the person behind one of the Mangalyaan payloads.
According to a report by WIRED, Dutta was the Project Manager for the Methane Sensor for Mars and was given the responsibility for the development of the complete optical system – optimisation, characterisation and calibration of the sensor.
Project Manager and System Engineer for Mangalyaan
Born in Kolkata, Minal was a gold medalist in electronics and communication engineering from Nirma Institute of Technology and Science, Ahmedabad.
She started her career as a Satellite Communications Engineer at ISRO and was the project manager and a systems engineer for Mangalyaan and was involved in incorporating the components of the payloads.
She was also a head engineer for Chandrayaan-2 and currently serves as a Deputy Project Director at the space agency.
Minal’s name has often been reported as Minal Sampat in media reports.
Dr Seetha Somasundaram
Program Director at ISRO’s Space Science Programme
A student of astronomy, with interest in the study of variable starsin X-ray, Dr Seetha has contributed to the development of instruments for various space based astronomical experiments.
Dr Seetha and her team were, according to reports, responsible for ensuring that all the payloads work properly. She joined ISRO in the 1980s.
In the Vaid’s book, Dr Seetha says that the women in ISRO have dispelled the feeling that women aren't very involved and committed; that they need to go home and work limited hours.
Adding to the glory, the total cost of this moon mission was approximately Rs 450 crore (US$73 million), making it the least-expensive Mars mission to date.
Launched from ISRO's Satish Dhawan Space Centre, the Mangalyaan mission quickly gained prominence, from being printed on the back of Indian currency to being the subject of a star-studded Bollywood movie, Mission Mangal.
Following is a short film, Breakthrough: Snapshots from Afar, on the achievement of these women in India’s Mars Orbiter Mission: