Conquering space one woman at a time

Conquering space one woman at a time

In the six decades since the dawn of the Space Age, humanity has witnessed rapid technological advancements leading to several pathbreaking space missions and even the setting up of a permanent space facility - International Space Station (ISS).

Nearly 600 people have travelled to the ISS; however, a close look reveals that only one-tenth of them are women. Does this imply that women are not cut out for a space career? Far from it. Astronaut Peggy Whitson's incredible space record stands testimony to what women can achieve.

As with other fields, space sciences too posed many hurdles for women. Today it may be commonplace to see women looking up to a career in this advanced field. However, history of the past decades is rife with stories of barriers and how some enterprising women stood tall and surpassed them.

Space flights are arduous tasks, involving grit, stamina and focus. The training includes rigorous psycho-physiological endurance tests. In the early days of human spaceflight, there was a false notion that a woman's physiology was not suited for microgravity. Also, the candidates had to be experienced test-pilots, which was a male bastion, and naturally women were barred from enrolling for space missions.

However, in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova squashed these beliefs by becoming the first woman to circle the earth. Over the years, rules changed to provide opportunities for women to be test pilots and sign up for spaceflight. Since then, female astronauts from the US, France, Germany, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, India (origin), Italy and UK have been on space missions.

An interesting anecdote from the Project Mercury, which sent the first man from the US to space, needs mention. Despite knowing that women would not be selected for the actual flight, Jerrie Cobb, an expert pilot enrolled in the training programme.

In one endurance test, she emerged unscathed after being submerged in a tank of cold water for nine hours. Her performance - which was among the top 2% - proved that women could endure the rigours of space. Eventually, Nasa amended its policies, and by 1980s, female astronauts were enlisted. Since then women have commanded missions, even performing critical spacewalks.  

While women were breaking several barriers in space flight, the plight of experts for ground-based work was no better. High technology, arduous and decisive work platforms were considered out of bounds for women. Many even struggled to obtain advanced degrees in space sciences.

In the early days, computers were not as evolved as today, and hence critical computations and algorithms for spaceflights were processed by mathematicians, called human computers. Here too, the preferred choice were men.

Challenging the system, a group of young girls led by Katherine Johnson enrolled as human computers. Soon, their competence proved to be indispensable. According to Nasa's records, John Glenn, the first US astronaut, relied on this group's calculations more than the mechanical calculators and only after Katherine gave a green signal, was he at ease.

Rocket women of India

In the present day, India's space-faring ventures and successful missions are backed by the strong and silent contributions of able women scientists who have proven their competency in various departments of Isro.

The Mars Orbiter Mission is a standing example where women from various technical departments played a crucial role in the path-breaking success of this maiden venture which set a unique record.

With a narrow window of 18 months to realise the project, they worked relentlessly balancing the technical aspects of work and social pressures of life. Anuradha TK, Senior Program Director; Nandini Harinath, Deputy Operations Manager; and Lalithambika VR, Deputy Director who were a part of this prestigious project vociferously commend their team's hard work, dedication and focus which resulted in a resounding success of the mission. There are many more similar stories other women bravehearts.

The International Women's Day is an opportunity to salute the unsung heroes among us and pay a tribute to all the bold women who believed in themselves. Their exhibition of sheer grit, determination and perseverance has paved the way for others to follow their passions and prove their mettle.

Standing on the shoulders of such giants and their exemplary contributions, today women are seizing the moment and pioneering space missions. They are going all out to leave an indelible mark of their abilities as the limitless possibilities of space beckon them.

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