Please tell us about yourself

In his Independence Day speech this year, PM Narendra Modi set 2022 as the deadline for India’s first manned mission to space and said “either a daughter or son of India would go into space with the tricolour in hand”. The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) has entrusted the programme to V R Lalithambika, a veteran of more than 100 space missions. The soft-spoken, 56-year-old scientist was also a vital member of the team behind the launch of a record 104 satellites in one go on February 15, 2017. She talks to Surendra Singh about the manned mission as well as the challenges and rewards of being a space scientist

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Gaganyaan is supposed to take off into space by 2022. Tell us about your role.

The directorate of human space programme (DHSP) has been set up at the Isro headquarters. My designation is director, DHSP. We will be working under the guidance of the Isro chairman to complete the mission. We are charting out ways as to how it should be done. All Isro centres will be involved in its execution. Academia and industry will also be roped in.

As a student, what drew you to space sciences?

My grandfather was a multifaceted personality. Besides being a mathematician, he was an astronomer and gadget-maker too. He used to make lenses, telescopes and microscopes at home. Right from childhood, I had exposure to science and technology because of him. Our house in Thiruvananthapuram was very close to the Thumba rocket-testing centre and I could watch sounding rocket launches from home. My grandfather used to alert me about upcoming launches and educate me about Isro’s work. Naturally, I was drawn towards it. My father was an engineer and my husband too had an engineering background. We are a family of engineers.

Despite clearing GATE, you didn’t join IIT for MTech. Instead you got married. How did that change your career plans?

I did BTech (Electrical Engineering) from College of Engineering in Thiruvananthapuram and was the college topper. Then I got married and subsequently did MTech in control engineering from the same college. I am proud of passing out from a college that has produced many stalwarts in diverse fields of engineering. In a sense, marriage is what made me, as most of my achievements came after that. When I joined Isro’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in 1988, I already had a two-yearold child but my husband took the burden of taking care of the house. Later, I had another child. I could finish my PhD while working only because of my family’s support. My parents and husband were so supportive that I could devote most of my time to Isro’s work. Now, I am a proud grandmother of two.

Any advice for those juggling motherhood and a demanding career?

For a working mother, a good support structure is a blessing. Those who don’t have it, have to really struggle. It’s a question of time management and family support.

You’ve overseen missions like PSLV and GSLV. Which were the most challenging?

In my 30 years at Isro, I have tasted both failure and success. Two or three months after I joined, we saw the failure of the second ASLV and then the first PSLV. The latter was my first direct experience of failure. It was such a traumatic experience. We learnt a lot from it. Thereafter, we focused on simulations. After that setback, the PSLV never failed us and became the most trusted workhorse of Isro.

I started off with PSLV as a control engineer and was involved in all missions thereafter: GSLV Mk II, Mk III and reusable launch vehicle. Before coming to the Isro headquarters in Bengaluru, I was deputy director (control, guidance and simulation) at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram. My team and I have been working on guidance, autopilot design, navigation guidance and control simulations which involve both hardware and software. This is one of the specialised areas related to vehicle launch technology.

What do you think is keeping women out of STEM fields? Is it gender bias?

Having never experienced gender bias in my life, I wouldn’t speak on the issue. I have never felt any gender bias in Isro. Once you enter the organisation, you are doing your job, irrespective of gender.