Chandrayaan-3 success puts India’s ‘rocket women’ in the spotlight

Scientists hope the success of ISRO’s moon mission will inspire more young women to study science.

Published : Aug 29, 2023 14:57 IST - 4 MINS READ

Over 100 women scientists and engineers are reported to have been involved in India’s Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission.

Over 100 women scientists and engineers are reported to have been involved in India’s Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission. | Photo Credit: Amit Dave/REUTERS

On August 26, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with several female scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to highlight the role women played in Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission. “The women scientists of this mission have played a crucial role in ensuring its success. Without their contribution, this achievement was just not possible. They will inspire generations to come,” Modi said.

Modi also decided to name Chandrayaan-3’s landing spot on the moon “Shiv Shakti”, a name derived from the concept of feminine energy in Hindu mythology, and a tribute to the women scientists who worked on the mission. Between 20 and 25 per cent of the space agency’s over 16,000 employees are women.

Over 100 women scientists and engineers are reported to have been involved in the mission, which culminated in India landing its lunar rover on August 23 and becoming the first country to put a spacecraft near the moon’s south pole. Many women were in the control room at the time of the launch and during the landing on August 23.

Also Read | Meet the women scientists defying harsh winters to power India’s Antarctic programme

In an interview with DW, ISRO chief S. Somanath talked about how women were involved in conceptualizing, designing and executing the Chandrayaan-3 mission. “Some of them played a significant role in navigation during the lander’s critical descent,” said Somanath.

Who are some of ISRO’s women scientists?

One of the mission’s leaders was deputy project director Kalpana Kalahasti. Her experience has included roles in India’s second lunar mission and the Mars orbiter mission. Kalahasti is a satellite specialist and she has overseen sophisticated imaging devices that have enabled ISRO to capture high-resolution images of Earth’s surface.

Reema Ghosh is a robotics specialist who worked on the development of the “Pragyan” rover that is currently operating on the lunar surface. “For me, Pragyan is like the baby and he is taking baby steps on the moon. It is a wonderful experience to see the rover roll out on the moon for the first time,” Ghosh told the press following Modi’s visit.

“There are a lot of other missions in the plan, including the Mars landing mission, and the Aditya-L1 mission, which will be shortly launched,” she added. Aditya-L1 is a planned ISRO mission to study the solar atmosphere set to be launched the first week of September.

Ritu Karidhal, a senior scientist and aerospace engineer, joined ISRO in 1997 and has been part of many important space missions, including Chandrayaan-2 where she was project director, and the Mars orbiter mission “Mangalyaan”. Popularly known as the “rocket woman” of India, Karidhal also received the “ISRO Young Scientist Award”.

“Chandrayaan has written India’s name on the moon forever. India becomes the first country to reach the south pole of the moon. I and the others played a major role,” Karidhal wrote on social media.

Another ISRO senior scientist, Nidhi Porwal, who also worked diligently for four years to ensure the success of Chandrayaan-3, described the lander reaching the lunar surface as “magic”. She said that the contribution of women at ISRO sets a strong example for other fields.

More women needed in STEM fields

Despite ISRO’s record of including women scientists, experts believe that more needs to be done to increase the participation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs.

“It is worth mentioning that every drop counts because it has some value, some additive effect. However, it should certainly be the goal for every scientific and technological endeavor in the country to see that women’s participation is not increasing dropwise but by leaps and bounds. We are way behind that goal,” Vineeta Bal, a biologist, told DW.

Bal, a former member of the Prime Minister’s task force for women in science under the Ministry of Science and Technology, said India needs a higher representation of women in these disciplines.

Also Read | How science academies can enhance scientific temper in India

A recent nationwide survey found that women make up only 13 per cent of scientists and science faculty at Indian higher education and research institutions. This adds to concerns that recommendations made years ago to improve the gender ratio remain unimplemented.

According to World Bank data, women make up nearly 43 per cent of total STEM graduates in India, one of the highest in the world. However, women comprise just 14 per cent of scientists, engineers, and technologists at research institutions and universities.

“We are seeing more women in scientific institutions which is encouraging. But when it comes to institutional leadership, there is a big gap and analyses must be done. Fewer women are on panel committees and there is an imbalance that needs to be corrected,” Soumya Swaminathan, a former chief scientist at the World Health Organization, told DW.

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