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Mangalyaan's unexpected gift: The glimpse of Isro's 'Rocket Women'

There are indeed some things money can’t buy.

The cost of a Mangalyaan mission to Mars: Rs 450 crore.

But that photograph of jubilant ISRO scientists flashing thumbs up? Priceless.

When we think about space, whenever we think about science, we think about Vikram Sarabhai or Homi Bhabha or Satish Dhawan. Serious men in suits.

We do not think of women in brightly coloured silk saris, with a bit of gold on the borders, pottus on their forehead, and gajras in their hair whooping it up. We’ve seen pictures like that on Facebook but they are usually at pongal or Navratri or wedding celebrations.

But this was at the Indian Space Research Organisation.

It is wonderful that for a moment the whole world could see Indian women on the front pages of Indian newspapers in a story that was not about gang-rape and domestic violence. In fact, in a story that was not about being a woman at all but about professionals celebrating a job well-done.

 Mangalyaans unexpected gift: The glimpse of Isros Rocket Women

The women scientists at ISRO. AFP.

The first rocket ISRO launched in 1963 was named Rohini. But since then as Quartz puts it the “face of India’s space program has always been a man”. (As is true of the face of almost everything else).

Mangalyaan however suddenly propelled to the front pages the faces of unknown women who have given wings to India’s space program. This not wind beneath the wings. They are very much part of the wings.

Quartz says 20% of ISRO’s total workforce is women. And 10% of the total staff are women engineers. That might well be a hidden factor in why the programme has proved to be so thrifty yet efficient.

Jokes aside, the faces of those women of ISRO gives us a chance to step back and realize how many women have quietly rocketed India into space. In 2011, India Today reported on GSAT-12, a communication satellite being launched by ISRO. The figures at its helm, the project director, the mission director and the operations director were all women.

Women in sciences make news but usually only when it’s a first. Asima Chatterjee and Janaki Ammal remain pioneers as the first women to be conferred a Doctorate of Science. Or an Anna Mani – the only woman scientist to work with C.V. Raman.

Of course there is a glass ceiling being broken here but it’s happening without much fanfare. When Durba Banerjee tried to become a commercial pilot with Indian Airlines the story goes that central aviation minister Humayun Kabir offered her the post of a flight attendant. Banerjee stuck to her guns and became India’s first commercial woman pilot. Years later Kabir got off a plane and realized the pilot was none other than Durba Banerjee. Now Air India is among the biggest employer of female pilots in the world.

Space might or might not be the final frontier for women but they have actually been quietly exploring it for awhile now. They may not always make the news because they are behind the scenes unlike Indian-Americans Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams who actually went to space. But they are part of the DNA of India’s space programme.

The BBC profiled Minal Sampath, a systems engineer with the Mars programme. She talks about the 18-hour days in windowless rooms, of the guilt of checking payloads while her young son is sick. But she also jokes that she sometimes forgot she is a woman. “Maybe it's because we spend a lot of time working in clean rooms with full suits on, so you can't tell who is male or female," she laughs.

This does not mean sciences are some kind of thriving petri dish for women in India. When India Today profiled India’s top 25 scientists it included only four women. Three-and-a-half, really, since one woman was part of a couple. A 2012 study by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the National Institute of Science and Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS) raised alarm bells when it revealed that of the total indexed projects, women scientists exclusively contributed only 3.4 percent of research. Even within that, certain fields like reproductive biology drew far more women researchers than others fields. And when women did publish research they published in “low impact factor and domestic journals and also are cited less as compared to their male counterparts.” The Women in Science panel of the Indian Academy of Sciences notes that while women are motivated to pursue a Ph.D degree their “post-PhD. remain disproportionately low.”

Kausik Datta points out on his blog that when Dr. Yamuna Krishnan won the government-awarded Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in 2013 she was one of only 15 women who had won the award since its inception in 1958. That’s 15 out of 450 total awardees! Datta says embarrassedly that when challenged to name top 5 women scientists in India without doing a Google search he “couldn't remember off-hand the names of any top tier Indian women in the pure sciences fields.”

That probably holds true for most of us.

It’s not that the women of ISRO are complaining. Or see themselves as activists. They might even cringe at being called “women scientist” as if they are some kind of sub-species. N. Valarmathi, the head of the PSLV-C19-RISAT-1 Mission tells Deccan Herald her only message to women was “I would say all women are equally capable and they all have very good potential; it should be properly utilized.”

But there is always a glass ceiling to be broken. Sampath hints at that when she says “I want to be the first woman director of a space centre.”

Sampath’s dream of actually going to space might not be realized but this dream could come true. After all when she was growing up, few around her would have dreamed she would be helping launch a Mars orbiter. Asked how she decided she wanted to work on the space programme, she gave a very familiar answer.

"I was in [my last year at primary school], when I saw a live launch on TV. At that time it just struck me in my mind how good it would be to work there, and today I am here."

Perhaps another young woman seeing the photograph of women like Sampath on the front pages of newspapers today will be inspired to reach for the stars as well.
And that would be a benefit we could not have ever imagined would come out of Mangalyaan.

John Gray thinks men are from Mars and women are from Venus. He should have been at ISRO yesterday. It turns out Mars has more than its share of women too.

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Updated Date: Sep 25, 2014 13:50:44 IST