Every shining dot in the sky is not a star.
So, “Question everything”
A two-word quote by the World’s first professional woman astronomer Maria Mitchell, says a lot about astronomy and being an astronomer. She was no doubt one of the brightest stars of Astronomy. In 1847 she discovered a comet with the help of a telescope and the comet was named as ‘Miss Mitchell’s comet.
This was just the beginning. And the zeal continues even today. The year 2019 began with a bang for the Woman in space. The world is all set for the first ever all-female crew spacewalk at the International Space Station. NASA astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch are ready for the spacewalk. Along with them would be two more women, the Lead Flight Director Mary Lawrence, and the lead EVA (spacewalk) flight controller Jackie Kagey.
In 2019, A senior professor from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) Bengaluru, Dr G C Anupama becomes the first women to be elected the president of Astronomical Society of India (ASI), the prime association of professional astronomers in India.
In the course of Woman’s day celebration, let’s also remember some female stargazers who have always believed in themselves and achieved their fortunes. For India, even the kids remember names of two female astronauts who have made India proud. Sunita Williams and Kalpana Chawla. The two names who are referred to as American astronauts, although they have an Indian origin.
Kalpana Chawla lost her life in one of the space missions. She was the first female of Indian origin to go to space. She was born in a small town Karnal in Harayana. At the age of 20, she moved to the United States to fulfill her dream of being in the space. Kalpana travelled over 10.4 million miles in 252 orbits of the earth, logging more than 372 hours in space. On February 1, 2003, Kalpana Chawla died along with other six other crew members in the Space Shuttle Columbia on the ill-fated STS-107 mission. She still remains in the eyes and hearts of millions of Indians specially the young ones, who live their ‘kalpana’ of becoming the Kalpana of space.
Sunita Williams has her roots in Mehsana district in Gujarat, although she was born in Ohio. She holds the record for the maximum number of spacewalks by a woman, as she has done around seven spacewalks. She also holds the record for the longest amount of spacewalk time by a woman which is 50 hours and 40 minutes. She spent almost an year (322 days to be specific) in her two space shuttle missions.
While talking about Indian women in astronomy, we must talk about India’s pride in space sciences, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and its Mars orbiter mission to the red planet in 2013. This made India the first country to do so in its first attempt and that too in a very low budget. India’s Mars Orbiter mission of $74 million, was far cheaper than other comparable missions.
The women of ISRO, Ritu Karidhal and Nandini Harinath, deputy operations directors of Mars Orbiter Mission, to Anuradha TK, Programme Director at ISRO satellite centre to GC Anupama and Annapuri Subramaniam of Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Astrophysics, many women scientists have become the shining stars.
Ritu Karidhal has an inspiring story of being an avid sky watcher who used to wonder about the size of the moon, why it increases and decreases to becoming a space scientist. Similar story for Nandini Harinath, who like any other woman, maintained the balance between work and family. A rocket scientist at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Satellite Centre in Bengaluru, Nandini has worked on 14 missions in her 20 years of work.
Also Seetha Somasundaram, Programme Director at ISRO co-ordinates all the space science activities at ISRO. Minal Rohit, Scientist and engineer, also Project Manager at ISRO for the Mars mission.
Anuradha TK, Geosat Programme Director at Isro Satellite Centre specialises in sending communication satellites into space that sit at least 36,000km from the earth’s centre.
GC Anupama is dean of Faculty of Sciences at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore. Annapurni Subramaniam, also from IIA, is a senior scientist engaged in astronomical data collection from Ultra Violet Imaging Telescope.
Although astronomy is still considered a tough option for women because of its demand of working in nights, at far off locations. But, these women always believed in themselves, and also in the fact that science is above the gender biasness. They prove that Women and science gel completely. For these ladies of space, that saying goes absolutely true and literal – ‘Sky is the limit’.