ISRO's 'rocket women' integral to Chandrayaan-3 success

Indian scientists hope the success of the Chandrayaan-3 moon mission will inspire more young women to study and work in STEM disciplines

Students of a girls' school watch a simulation of the Vikram lander from Chandrayaan-3 touching down on the lunar surface (photo: DW)
Students of a girls' school watch a simulation of the Vikram lander from Chandrayaan-3 touching down on the lunar surface (photo: DW)


On Saturday, 26 August, prime minister Narendra Modi met with several female scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to highlight the role women played in the 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," the prime minister said.

Modi has also named the lander Vikram's landing spot on the moon 'Shiv Shakti', a name derived from the concept of complementary masculine and feminine energies in Hindu mythology, in a tribute to the women scientists who worked on the mission.

Around 20–25 per cent of the space agency's 16,000-plus employees are women.

Over 100 women scientists and engineers are reported to have been involved in the Chandrayaan-3 mission alone, which culminated in India putting its lunar rover Pragyan on the moon on August 23 and becoming the first country to put a spacecraft near the lunar south pole.

Many women were in the control room at the time of the launch and during the landing last week too.

In an interview with DW, ISRO chief S. Somanath talked about the women who were involved in conceptualising, 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.

There is also Reema Ghosh, 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," Ghosh added.

Aditya-L1 is the ISRO mission planned to study the solar atmosphere. It is set to be launched in the first week of September.

Ritu Karidhal, another senior scientist and an aerospace engineer, joined ISRO in 1997 and has been part of many important space missions, including Chandrayaan-2, for which she was project director, and the Mars orbiter mission Mangalyaan.

Popularly known as the 'rocket woman of India', Karidhal has 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 Vikram lander reaching the lunar surface as "magic".

She said that the contribution of the women at ISRO sets a strong example for girls and young women interested in other fields too.

More women needed in STEM fields

Despite ISRO's track 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) programmes.

"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 endeavour 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.

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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