Video Editor: Rajbir Singh
An aeronautical engineer who was part of the crew on the Virgin Galactic Unity 22 flight to space, Sirisha Bandla is the Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations for Virgin Galactic.
Speaking to The Quint, she talks about her flight to space in 2021, her childhood, what inspired her to pursue aeronautical engineering, and more!
Early Life and Living Close to NASA
Bandla spent her early childhood in Andhra Pradesh, after which she moved to the US. “It’s a different world when you’re a child,” she remarks.
“I was very close to NASA,” she adds, “So, I already was interested in space, but being close to NASA Center, where I could go, drag my parents there, go to the museum, go to the air shows, really lit that fire that I wanted to be in this industry.”
On Being the Second India-born Woman to Explore Space
She goes on to talk about how honoured she is to be one of the first Indian-origin women in space, but commented that she “hope(s) to not be the last.”
“The whole mission of Virgin Galactic, and the reason why I’m so passionate about commercial space industry,” she says, “is that we are opening up that aperture, and opening up space for everyone. So, I really hope to see, in the next few years, that number of Indians in space going up!”
On Being Inspired by Kalpana Chawla
Bandla has repeatedly cited Dr Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman to go to space in 2003, as her personal inspiration.
“It wasn’t until I saw Dr Chawla and her story, where I found that going to space was attainable for me, because I saw someone that I shared an identity with doing something I really wanted to do and that I was passionate about, and it made it so much more real,” she emphasises.
She adds that she modelled her career trajectory after Dr Chawla’s as well, and that the latter played a significant role in her life.
What About Space Programmes in India?
“India has always been on the forefront of science and technology. ISRO has been a leader, they’ve sent vehicles to the Moon and to Mars, not very many countries have accomplished that and that’s an incredible feat!” she comments.
She also argues that for more and more people to go to space, the commercial space industry plays an integral role, as it opens access to space to a much wider group of people.
“With commercial capabilities, it doesn’t have to be a career, it can be for tourism purposes, it can be for science, it can be for research, it can be for education!”
“I think it’s in that partnership of agencies with commercial companies that we can really open up space for many, many more communities,” Bandla explains.
On Women in the Space Industry
Bandla emphasises the importance of both representation and appropriate programs to be put in place to make STEM fields like space a comfortable and encouraging space for women.
Speaking about women in technical fields, she says, “They’re not the majority, and they face environments and pressures that others don’t, and for young women to navigate that, it’s very difficult … It’s not events that take place, it’s small micro-aggressions that build up that discourage women and eventually, get to a point where they make a decision that it’s not worth it.”
She asserts that some of this could be counteracted by programmes for women in STEM fields, saying, “I would love to see more and more programmes that encourage women into the aerospace field and into the STEM field, but also along with encouragement, provide them the tools for success.”
How Does Space Feel?
“It’s such an indescribable feeling, it’s really a holistic emotional state, physical state… everything comes together to create this incredible transformative journey. I enjoyed every single part of it,” she says with a huhe smile.
“It wasn’t until a couple minutes into the flight that I was able to look out of the window, and that first look out the window was breathtaking, just to see Earth.”
“You look back, and it’s literally housing everyone and everything you’ve ever known, your way of life… it’s humbling, for lack of a better word, to look back on a planet so brilliant as our own,” she adds.
Bandla concludes by saying that it is an extremely exciting time for the space industry because flights from government are being overtaken by flights from the commercial sector.
“I remember the days when someone was launching, whether it was SpaceX, or whether it was a government agency, and we’d all tune in and watch the webcast. Now, we’re in a phase where we’re like, ‘Oh, there’s another launch this week'.”