The women behind the flying machines: Book tells stories of ISRO’s women scientists

Minnie Vaid's new book 'Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines' will be launched on March 25.
The women behind the flying machines: Book tells stories of ISRO’s women scientists
The women behind the flying machines: Book tells stories of ISRO’s women scientists
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Two and a half years ago, Minnie Vaid was in Mumbai for a women’s empowerment summit organised by the Indian Women Network of Confederation of Indian Industry. An author, journalist and documentary filmmaker, Minnie was drawn most to the stories of the Mangalyaan women scientists who were billed in the event’s invitation. During the lunch break, she even met them, hoping to chronicle their stories further.

That marked the beginning Minnie’s journey to writing Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines, which will be launched by Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi on March 25. The book tells the stories of women scientists who played important roles in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s first inter-planetary mission, Mangalyaan, to Mars. Launched in 2013, Mangalyaan made India the first country to reach the Mars orbit in the first attempt.

A full disc image of Mars by MOM. Courtesy: ISRO

Minnie has profiled 21 women scientists. Some of them are Nandini Harinath and Ritu Karidhal who were tasked with operations and design; Minal Sampath and Moumita Datta who worked on the complex scientific instruments or payloads aboard the Mars Orbiter; and even senior women scientists like Seetha Somasundaram, program director Space Science; N Valarmathi, deputy director URSC (U R Rao Satellite Centre) and TK Anuradha, the program director of GEOSAT (Geodetic Satellite).

But Minnie did not come to know about these women when she first read about the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). “I do remember the now-iconic photograph of a group of Kanjeevaram silk sari-clad women with traditional jewellery and mogras in their hair, hugging each other in joyous celebration, while some men stood at the fringe of the photograph watching with smiles on their faces,” she tells TNM.

After she got permission from ISRO to interview the women for the book, Minnie began her secondary research. But there was very little to go on. “I had to scrounge around to get some relevant statistics about women in leading positions in science and technology in India,” Minnie shares.  

Minnie interviewed women scientists at different positions of hierarchy – while some were ambitious young achievers who had won awards at ISRO and outside, others had decades of experience at ISRO. Minnie even got a chance to visit Sriharikota and was able to watch a PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) take off. “It’s a sight I will remember all my life,” she recalls.

When it comes to the challenges that the women scientists faced in their field, Minnie observes, “For most, the challenge began with being ‘allowed’ to pursue science beyond graduation, or to go out of their comfort zone and travel far-off to study and then to working at ISRO.” However, once the women started working at ISRO, the scientists said that the work was assigned based only on capability.

“The older scientists did share early reactions where bosses asked if they would be able to stay back late or travel. However, they did not directly allude to gender discrimination in terms of biases and male attitudes beyond what is considered almost the accepted norm by working women across the world: the gaps due to pregnancy, the ‘double work’ needed to be done by the women at work and at home,” Minnie says.

Scientists monitoring the Mars Orbiter spacecraft health at Spacecraft Control Centre during Trans Mars Injection Manoeuvre

The author admits that she imagined that her interviewees would have faced a stronger gender bias, given there are much fewer women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) than men. And while these women refuted any gender related struggles at ISRO, Minnie argues that the numbers do not lie. “Till parity is achieved for male and female scientists in terms of numbers and top positions, I’d say that the challenges are very much in existence even today.”

During the course of the interviews, there were many stories that inspired Minnie, and many perspectives that made her reflect on her own life. But one that stands out for her is that of TK Anuradha. “She had an interesting take on how it is possible to make something ‘go good, if you want it to go good’. A topper in medicine and engineering she chose the latter against her father’s wishes, resisted offers of going abroad like most of her college mates, worked and thrived at ISRO for almost three decades, balancing her family with equal dexterity,” Minnie shares.

Minnie believes it’s important to tell these stories to serve as role models for young girls who may want to pursue STEM. “[These women scientists] have provided a visible reference point for countless youngsters in India, especially those who might face resistance from family and society about doing science—still seen as something ‘not for girls.’ As N Valarmathi told me, every time she gives a motivational talk to young girls in colleges or schools, she ends with ‘if I am able to do this, why not you?’” Minnie says.  

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