On Wednesday, the ISRO announced that Chandrayaan-2, India's second mission to the moon, will be launched on July 15 at 2.15 AM from Sriharikota. This particular mission is an advancement of Chandrayaan-1, which was launched a decade ago. Chandrayaan-2 will scale the lunar surface and gather intel on minerals, rock formations and water. It will also be the first interplanetary mission that has a woman Project Director and a woman Mission Director. In fact, thirty percent of the team in charge of the mission is composed of women.
Rocket science in India has largely been considered to be a male domain. Five years ago, after the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) entered Mars' orbit, a picture went viral online which showed women in the ISRO control room rejoicing and celebrating the success of the mission.
The picture opened up a Pandora's box; it sparked debates online about the female scientists at ISRO and how they are usually missing from the spotlight despite having an integral role to play.
(Picture credit: AFP)
ISRO chairman Dr K Sivan told mediapersons on Wednesday that there have been many instances of women scientists being project directors for other satellite programmes like communication satellites. But women have clearly made their mark in these outer space exploration missions, like MOM.
M. Vanitha is the Project Director while Ritu Karidhal is the Mission Director for Chandrayaan-2.
Vanitha is the first woman to hold such a position in such a vital mission at the ISRO so far; the role of a project director does not just require technical knowledge. It requires adequate coordination and management skills as well. A thread on Quora speaks about the duties and responsibilities of a project director and how it differs from that of a mission director. As the project director, she will be required to oversee the development of hardware and other aspects of the project which would catapult the mission towards completion. In other words, every minute aspect of the project will be under her supervision.
Trained as a design engineer, Vanitha had also received the award for the Best Woman Scientist in 2006 by the Astronomical Society of India.
On the other hand, we have Ritu Karidhal as the Mission Director; she had also served as the Deputy Operations Director for the Mars Orbiter Mission.
A report by the BBC states that Karidhal had worked at the ISRO for eighteen years and had been part of several missions. She had also worked on the Chandrayaan-1 mission, although she wasn't a part of the core team. It was the Mars Orbiter Mission that brought her to the limelight.
As the Mission Director, Karidhal will be overseeing the mission as a whole, review its progress and coordinate with other agencies in order to attain the goal. Being the mission designer, she will also be developing the mission objectives and ensure their fulfillment.
A video posted by Google India reveals how science had never been just another subject at school for Karidhal; it was her passion, and something that she wanted to pursue. In the video, Karidhal also speaks about work-life balance and how without the support of family members, it would be impossible for a woman in India to pursue her dreams.
Karidhal, who has a degree in aerospace engineering, graduated from the University of Lucknow. Following this, she bagged her job at ISRO, Bangalore. In 2007, she also received the prestigious ISRO Young Scientist Award from A.P.J Abdul Kalam in 2007. Today, she is known as the Rocket Woman of India.
To say that women have not served in important roles at the ISRO would be a gross understatement. They've steered important missions and held key positions, not just to establish gender sensitivity but just because they were the right people for the job.
As Sivan said, "We only looked at the most fit person for the job, and it so happened it was women here. It didn't make a difference for us."