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'Flying into Space Could be as Cheap as Buying an SUV': India's 'Space Woman' Susmita Mohanty

'Flying into Space Could be as Cheap as Buying an SUV': India's 'Space Woman' Susmita Mohanty

Susmita Mohanty, named among BBC 100 Women 2019, designs spacecrafts and is the founder of India's first space-tech start-up, Earth2Orbit.

Rakhi Bose
  • Last Updated: November 2, 2019, 3:42 PM IST
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New Delhi: What does one require to live in space? While the 2015 Hollywood film The Martian gave us a glimpse of what it could be like to set up camp and farm potatoes on Mars, real-time space living could be a lot more complicated. But complicated does not mean impossible. And Susmita Mohanty, the woman behind India's first "space start-up", makes it sound as easy as pie.

For over fifteen years, Mohanty, often hailed as India's spacewoman has been designing essentials required for living in outer space. That means designing space habitats, rovers, space-suits, protocols and so on. Today, Mohanty who was recently named among BBC's 100 Women list of most influential women, uses her expertise to try and solve challenges that concern not just living in space but also on this "little blue spaceship" called Earth.

Living in Space

Commercial airlines fly at a height of 25 km above Earth's sea level. Space starts at about 100 km. And Mohanty believes that just like private commercial air travel became mainstream in the last century, private space flights are set to become a reality in this one.

Because she believes that all humans are astronauts already. "In the coming years, those of us who can pay our way can make it to the Earth's lower orbit," Mohanty says. She says in the next three decades flying into Earth's lower orbit could become as cheap as buying an expensive SUV.

Scientists and private space agencies have already developed suborbital and parabolic flights that can make travelers experience space for short spans of time. In 2004, aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan created SpaceShipOne, a light-weight private space plane that took three passengers to the edge of space and back, twice in two weeks. In 2006, Anousheh Ansari, the patron of The Ansari X Prize, became the first self-funded woman to fly to the International Space Station.

After short spells in NASA and Boeing, Mohanty, who belongs to a rapidly-multiplying breed of "New Space" entrepreneurs, started a space consultancy firm called Moon Craft in Los Angeles in 2001. Two years later, she founded Liquifier in Vienna, her second space firm that focused on designing human space exploration systems and habitats as well as full-scale prototypes. "We are designing for the near future," Mohanty tells News18. How will we live on the moon ten years from now? How to we travel to the moon five years from now? Answers to these questions, Mohanty says, could help humans solve problems closer home.

Closer Home - ISRO and Chandrayaan-II

Despite its failure to become the fourth country to ever successfully soft-land on the lunar surface, Mohanty believes India has great potential for space exploration. The daughter of a former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist, Mohanty has had the opportunity to observe the Indian space program right from its infancy.

Her third venture, the India-based Earth2Orbit, initially focused on launching international payloads on the Indian PSLV rocket. Though India had developed space-tech early with PSLV, which Mohanty referred to as a "very reliable" and cost-effective rocket, it did not have access to the international market.

Today, her ventures that operate from three countries together facilitate the PSLV's adoption for international satellite launches with clients including Japan's Osaka Institute of Technology, the US-based Google Terra Bella, thanks to her diplomatic skills, leveraging international connections and fighting "Old Space" bureaucracy.

Taking pride in India's space program, Mohanty reminds that despite being a developing nation, India's space program is as old as the rest of the world with the first experimental launch dating back to 1963, just two years after USSR sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, to space.

Mohanty says that Chandrayaan-2 was "fabulously designed, the orbital mechanics in terms of getting into Earth's orbit, injecting it around the moon and other important specifics were handled beautifully". The only hiccup was the landing. However, Mohanty believes it to be just that - a hiccup and not a failure that can be solved by the next mission.

"Less than 50 percent of all the attempted soft precision landings on the lunar surface have been successful," the planetary explorer tells News18. Russians last landed on the moon in 1966, Americans in 1972. After that, it was only in January this year that the Chinese lunar mission Chang'e 4 soft-landed on the far-side of the moon, the first one ever to do so.

"When it comes to technological capabilities and budgets, I would easily rank India among the top six," she says. However, Mohanty says there is a need to "privatize and commercialize" India's space program.

All-Women Spacewalk - "Too Little Too Late"

Being a woman in space is not easy. Despite Russia's Valentina Tereshkova becoming the first woman to reach space in 1963, it took over half a century to achieve an all-woman spaceflight. Even then, the initial spacewalk which was scheduled to happen in March this year had to be postponed till October because of unavailability of medium-sized space-suits for women.

Mohanty who has worked with NASA as a budding space junkie feels its all-women spacewalk that took place in October 2019 was 'too little too late'. "It is absurd that they made such a big deal about something that should have happened a long time ago," she says.

Incidentally, Mohanty remarks that in comparison, ISRO's gender ratio for women scientists is much higher. Mohanty now wants to focus on using geo-intelligence to counter climate change and other important aspects of life on Earth such as agriculture, disaster management and education.

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