Meet ISRO's 'Space Girls'

WOMEN POWER

GRITTY ACHIEVERS: (From  left to right) Anuradha Prakash, T K Anuradha and Pramoda Hegde.

Can India’s ‘Space Girls’ tag be limited to the Sunitas and Kalpanas? Of course, they have done us proud by putting themselves in space –– through foreign projects –– but the answer is no!

Although India’s dreams of sending humans out of the Earth’s atmosphere is distant and sending women, a latent dream, there is nothing preventing women from working up the ranks in space research and development in India’s premier space agency.

Thereby, it is only fair that the tag is extended to these achievers, who are battling the grand tradition of male contribution to ISRO’s success. And three women –– T K Anuradha, Anuradha Prakash and Pramoda Hegde –– have now become the face of this story.

In an incredible tale, they have carved a niche for themselves in space research and development in a country which has its men drawing the lines, and are responsible for ISRO’s latest communication satellite, the GSAT-12.

On April 19, 2008, Peggy Whitson, a veteran NASA astronaut completed a tour as the first female commander of the International Space Station. Three years later, although not out there in “space,” these three Indian women are commanding the GSAT-12 from ISRO’s Master Control Facility (MCF) in Hassan.

As Project Director, Mission Director and Operations Director, T K Anuradha, Pramoda Hegde and Anuradha Prakash, saw their baby (GSAT-12) take its first steps into space and are confident it will soon make them proud.

The moment came on July 15, 2011. The PSLV-C-17 (launch vehicle) blasted off to successfully launch the GSAT-12 satellite from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota.

A few minutes later, Anuradha Prakash was enveloped by a host of blinking screens and tireless colleagues dotting the MCF — the “sprawling antenna farm” — supervising key manoeuvres.

Before Anuradha got those signals popping on the screens at the Spacecraft Control Centre (SCC) at MCF, another woman sharing her name, T K Anuradha, was applauded for having successfully put the satellite into space from Sriharikota. Complementing these two ladies was Pramoda Hegde.

Their joy is unmatched even as they modestly claim it was not a special fete. “Frankly, I never thought of this as a great achievement. We joined ISRO to do precisely these things and we are doing it,” T K Anuradha told Deccan Herald.

Describing the moment she learnt the satellite had moved into the right orbit, she said: “…It was like delivering a child.” Her colleagues echoed her expression, almost as if they had rehearsed what to say.

The trio had earned their success and gender had nothing to do with it. As Director, ISRO Satellite Centre T K Alex puts it: “Until you asked me I never thought this was such a big deal. They are outstanding scientists and it is our priority to hand key projects to good scientists.”

What does ISRO feel about having an all-women team heading an important project, that too, for the first time? “They got the project because they were good. They were not favoured because of their gender. There were no short cuts awarded to them,” said Alex.

And indeed, there surely were no short cuts awarded to them! T K Anuradha and Pramoda had joined the space agency in the early ’80s. While the former joined in 1982, the latter about two or three years later and Anuradha Prakash, the junior most in the team (she is in her thirties as opposed to the others who are over 50) joined much later.

It was a story of many milestones, some small, some big but all of them significant. From the IRS series of satellites to the GSAT series and India’s future navigation satellite based on the lines of the Global Positioning System (GPS), their contribution will be hard to erase from ISRO’s memory.

And so will ISRO be from the trio’s. Pramoda, in line with the opinion of her colleagues, said: “It wouldn’t have been possible if not for the support from the team and seniors. We were never made to feel different because we were women. There were no special rewards, nor were we deprived of due credit.”

The many firsts of space research are Cold War legends. And our legends — ISRO’s ‘Space Girls’ — will not go unnoticed!

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