Chandrayaan-2, India’s second lunar exploration mission that is set to launch on July 15, will go down in history as the first space mission to be headed entirely by women in India: M Vanitha, the project director, and Ritu Karidhal, the mission director.
“Chandrayaan-2 is just the third time that ISRO is embarking on an outer space exploration mission — after Chandrayaan-1 and Mangalyaan, the Mars Orbiter Mission — and women have made their mark here as well,” said K Sivan, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), adding that 30% of the Chandrayaan-2 team are women.
Vanitha and Ritu, both in their 40s, have been working with ISRO for over 20 years. While Ritu has played a pivotal role in several mission operations, including Mangalyaan, Vanitha is considered a data cruncher.
M Vanitha: The only woman project director of ISRO
Muthayya Vanitha’s name will go down in Indian history as the first woman project director in ISRO, that too, for a landmark mission to the moon that is Chandrayaan-2. However, it may come as a surprise to many that Vanitha was reluctant to take up the role and needed quite a bit of persuasion to take up the post.
According to Dr M Annadurai, the project director for Chandrayaan-1, Vanitha, who is an expert in data handling, was comfortable in digital and hardware sphere and was hesitant to become the project director for a mission that has such national ramifications.
“This role not only involves nearly 18 hours of work a day at its peak, which means many sacrifices but is also in the national limelight bringing heavy responsibility of its own,” Dr Annadurai told News18.
Praising Vanitha, Dr Annadurai added that she has “excellent problem-solving skills” and team management capabilities that he believed come in handy for this crucial project; which is why he made the extra effort to convince her to get on board Chandrayaan-2.
She was among the top 10 scientists to watch out for this year by Nature, an international journal of science.
Ritu Karidhal: Turning childhood passion into reality
Ritu is hailed as one of the ‘rocket women’ of India. As a child, she always looked up to the sky from her Lucknow house, studying the stars and the moon. She was sure, even at that age, she wanted to explore space science. Years later, in 1997, she started her career as an aerospace engineer at ISRO.
“At that time, ISRO was my only option to get into that field, so I kept tabs on ISRO and their activities through the newspaper all through my childhood," she told iDiva.
She graduated in Physics from the University of Lucknow and earned her Masters in Aerospace Engineering from Indian Institute of Science (IIS).
Ritu, a mother of two, is used to long hours and realised that a 9-to-5 workday is something she would never enjoy, said Dr M Annadurai, the project director for Chandrayaan-1.
She worked on an array of ISRO projects, with the biggest one being the Mangalyaan or the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which launched on November 5, 2013.
As the Deputy Operations Director of MOM, Ritu conceptualised and ensured the execution of the spacecraft’s onward autonomy system, an onboard system-level capability to make mission-relevant decisions without ground support.
In Ted Talks India’s ‘How India went to Mars’, Ritu recalled that the biggest difficulty was the 18-month timeframe to complete the work for the Mars mission. With limited time in hand, she consulted with electrical, electronics and mechanical engineers and created the software in 10 months.
“This was the first Indian satellite to have full-scale, on-board autonomy, which had the capability to rectify its own problems. And most importantly, female scientists worked shoulder to shoulder along with male scientists to make this mission a success,” she said.
She has been the recipient of numerous awards: Young Scientist Award (2007), ISRO Team Award for MOM (2015) and Women Achievers in Aerospace (2017) by Society of Indian Aerospace Technologies and Industries (SIATI), among others.