For the first time, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has two women project directors — Ritu Karidhal and Muthayya Vanitha — for its inter-planetary mission Chandrayaan 2.
ISRO Chairman K Sivan, in a press conference on June 12, said close to 30 percent of the team working on Chandrayaan 2 are women.
Why is the fact that two women leading the project a big deal? It is a big deal because space science has been dominated by men for a long time and, until recently, the role of women in space projects barely got any attention.
At least not until Mangalyaan, India’s Mars orbiter mission, when the picture of women scientists celebrating after the success went viral. The women who shot to limelight then were Karidhal, TK Anuradha and Nandini Harinath.
Sivan said, “We are only in our third inter-planetary mission and we already have women leading the team.” While Karidhal is the director of the mission, Vanitha is the project director for Chandrayaan 2.
Chandrayaan 2, all set for launch on July 15 at 2.51 am, is the most challenging mission for ISRO due to soft landing the organisation is attempting with its lander. The project cost is close to Rs 1,000 crore with the involvement of close to 600 industries and 15 academia collaboration.
The roles of project director and mission director comes with huge responsibilities as ISRO takes on its second mission to the moon.
While the project director is fully responsible for the entire project from its inception till completion, the mission director is a temporary functional leader who oversees the mission and coordinates with various agencies for seamless completion of the project.
Going by their accomplishments, the two women are more than capable of handling the Chandrayaan 2 mission.
In the Mars orbiter mission, Karidhal not only played a key role in the mission but was also the deputy operations director. Mangalyaan started in 2012 and the scientists had to complete the mission in a very short span of 10 months at the expense of Rs 450 crore.
At a TED Talk a few years ago, Karidhal, who has earned the nickname ‘Rocket Woman’, talked about her fascination with stars even as a kid growing up in a middle class family in Lucknow. Joining ISRO in 1997 was only a natural progression, according to her. She was awarded a young scientist award in 2007, which she received from then President APJ Abdul Kalam.
Being in charge of Mangalyaan was by far the biggest project for her. Karidhal was responsible for conceptualisation and execution of the craft’s onward autonomy system.
In an interview to iDiva after Mangalyaan’s launch, Karidha had said, “That's basically the brain of the satellite, a software system coded in well enough to function on its own, determine what and when to detach, anything that needs to be infracted. If there's malfunction, the system needs to be designed well enough to correct and recover on its own in outer space."
Being a deputy operations director, Karidhal had to ensure that it was executed without anomaly.
If Karidhal was ‘Rocket Woman’, Chandrayaan 2 project director M Vanitha was named the top scientist to look out for in 2019 by Nature magazine. She was awarded the Best Woman Scientist Award in 2006.
Prior to Chandrayaan 2, Vanitha was heading the Telemetry and Telecommand Divisions in the Digital Systems Group, ISRO Satellite Centre. She had also worked as the deputy projects director for the TTC-baseband systems for Cartosat-1 and is the Deputy Project Director, Digital Systems for Oceansat-2 and Megha-Tropiques satellite.