ISRO’S Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines

By Minnie Vaid

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Reaching for the Moon

For me, after being wholly preoccupied with ISRO’s women scientists and their stories for the last three years, and with Ritu Karidhal being named mission director of this moon mission, Chandrayaan-2’s journey had become quite personal. Sitting past midnight in front of the live stream on television, it all felt almost like waiting for my own exam results—those last forty-five minutes before the much-anticipated and scheduled landing of the Chandrayaan-2 lander Vikram on the south pole of the moon. The tension, the wait, the knotted stomach—and the unconscious appeal to a higher god for a successful outcome. The rest of India and its citizens were doubtless united in the same prayer while space scientists worldwide watched the landing unfold with interest and considerable goodwill on their television screens and devices. Several threads on social media initiated by NASA scientists and others, posted updates on the lander’s trajectory.

Half an hour later, at around 1.30 a.m., as the much-publicised ‘Fifteen minutes of terror’ (ISRO chairman K Sivan had termed the last fifteen minutes of the lander’s descent thus) began, all television channels live streaming the landing, switched to the live feed transmitted by Doordarshan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined former ISRO chairmen in the viewing gallery at the Mission Operations Complex or MOX at ISTRAC (ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network). An air of palpable anticipation emanated from the non-scientists in the room, the scientists however continued to work at their assigned stations.

I began looking out for visuals of mission director Ritu Karidhal onscreen. And soon enough there she was, seated among a row of men and women, wearing a jacket over a simple white salwar-kameez, staring intently at the data on the monitors in front of them. She looked calm and composed, exchanging the occasional remark with her colleagues flanking her and giving what I presume were commands or directions from time to time, over the microphone she held in front of her.

As the descent crossed the rough breaking phase, claps and smiles swept across the room, allowing the rest of India a moment to breathe easy, fairly convinced now that success was just round the corner.
For the large majority who cannot decipher the trajectory of the lander that was publicly shared in real time by ISRO, the claps were a promising—and perhaps the only visible—sign of success. Online posts by those who did understand the green streak squiggles on the lander’s path, also started out saying ‘so far so good, engines burning, velocity dropping, 90 seconds of fine braking coming up’. Within minutes however the comments changed to ‘not looking good’, ‘perfect up till 400 metres, how sad!’

At MOX the mood changed drastically, silence giving way to disappointment and dismay all around, with the formal announcement by ISRO chairman K Sivan a little later that the Vikram lander descent had been normal, with the lander operating as expected until an altitude of 2.1 km when it lost communication with ISRO’s ground station and that the data was being analyzed. A partial failure or a partial success of the mission, depending on your interpretation.
As a three-part mission—Orbiter, Lander and Rover—a lot of science can be done from the orbiter. In terms of engineering, the entire mission was a huge effort towards development for India and ISRO but the heart of the mission was undeniably the lander. ISRO had practiced and achieved several successful launches over the years but this was the first attempt at a landing, often termed the hardest part of a mission where there is no scope for practice.

I looked for Ritu again and apart from a slight frown between her brows, the stoic expression hadn’t changed much. She continued to give the commands as needed, turning back in her chair to talk to senior ISRO scientists such as S Arunan (her project director during the Mangalyaan mission) and former ISRO chairman Kiran Kumar. The unflappable temperament and nerves of steel under extreme pressure—essential prerequisites in space research—were on full display in the rows occupied by the scientists watching their screens intently.
A short while later the prime minister left the premises, with the 400-strong media persons following suit once it was clear no further information would be shared that night.
For the scientists however—especially the mission director Ritu Karidhal and her project director Vanitha M—the night (and their work) was far from over.

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