India set off Chandrayaan 2 from Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh on July 22, 2019. Hailed as an engineering success with a budget less than that of Avengers: Endgame, the mission will send an orbiter, lander, and rover to explore the moon’s south pole. It is also the follow-up program for Chandrayaan 1 launched in 2008, which assisted in confirming the presence of water/hydroxyl on the moon. As mentioned on the ISRO website, Chandrayaan 2 aims to “…collect scientific information on lunar topography, mineralogy, elemental abundance, lunar exosphere and signatures of hydroxyl and water-ice.”
Apart from being one of the cheapest space missions ever, it is also the first space mission to conduct a soft landing on the moon’s south pole region and the first Indian mission to be exploring the lunar surface with completely home-grown technology. Simultaneously, Chandrayaan 2 is making waves for being one of the most important space missions in recent times to be lead by women scientists. The program comprised of thirty percent female members on the team – a big win for Indian space scene which has been dominated by male scientists for decades.
In fact, Chandrayaan 2 is the first interplanetary mission with a female Project Director and a female Mission Director. M. Vanitha led the Chandrayaan 2 mission as the Project Director and Ritu Karidhal did so as the Mission Director. Vanitha’s role as that of a project director requires a healthy mix of management and coordination skills along with sound technical knowledge. As a project director, she’ll be overseeing the engineering aspects of the project that will propel the mission towards success. Vanitha is the first female scientist to hold the coveted position of a project director for one of ISRO’s most crucial missions till date. She completed her education as a design engineer and was awarded as the Best Woman Scientist by Astronomical Society of India in 2006!
The other star of the mission is Ritu Karidhal who championed the program as the Mission Director of Chandrayaan 2. Prior to this, she also made headlines as the Deputy Operations Director for the Mars Orbiter Mission. Karidhal has been associated with ISRO for almost two decades and has been part of several missions. She had also worked on the Chandrayaan 1 but hasn’t yet been a part of the core team. Karidhal as the Mission Director will be in charge of the mission as a whole. This includes reviewing its progress and coordination with other agencies to ensure Chandrayaan 2’s success. She is also the mission designer, meaning she will be in charge of developing the mission objectives and ensuring its success. Karidhal holds a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Lucknow. She was awarded the acclaimed ISRO Young Scientist Award in 2007 by former Indian President, APJ Abdul Kalam. Today, the media hails her as the Rocket Woman of India!
ISRO has been fairly inclusive of women in their programs but has failed to give substantial media coverage to despite women scientists having an integral role to play for ISRO’s successes. ISRO’s chairman Dr. K. Sivan following the successful launch of Chandrayaan 2 claimed that, “we only looked at the most fit person for the job, and it so happened it was women here. It didn’t make a difference for us.”
Chandrayaan 2 is a major milestone in India’s space research journey and the fact that the mission is being lead by two women may turn out to be game-changer for India’s social landscape too. We hope that the much talked about mission encourages the nation to prioritize education and higher studies of her daughters. We also hope to see Indian institutions making way for more women in science and research and a new vigor in Indian media to bring to light the female heroes of STEM who often go neglected.