Meet Dr VR Lalithambika, the woman who will head ISRO’s Gaganyan project

On 15th August 2018, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort that India will send an Indian astronaut into space by 2022. For many Indians, this might have come as a surprise but not for the scientists at ISRO. For them, it was only a definitive timeline set for a project on which they have been working on for the last 15 years.

With the PM’s announcement, the national attention was drawn towards India’s simple, unassuming but robust space research organisation ISRO. India’s space missions so far have a high success rate. In fact, a 100% success rate. While space technology giants like Russia, USA, China etc have many failed missions, ISRO’s missions Chandrayan and Mangalyan were successful and were accomplished at a much lesser expense than similar missions of other nations. With Mangalyan launch in 2014, India became the first nation in the world to send a Mars Orbiter in its first attempt. But a manned space mission is very different and much more complicated. In fact, ISRO has been quietly working on it since 2004.

ISRO chairman K Sivan stated soon after PM’s announcement that what the PM said is highly doable and ISRO has been working on it. In fact, most of the essential technologies and hardware are developed, demonstrated and tested already. Technologies, such as the Human Crew module system, environmental control inside the spacecraft and life support system have already been developed. The task before ISRO is now to collaborate the technologies and take it into a full-scale live project mode. With the announcement of the ‘Gaganyan’ as the 2022 Human Space Flight Project is named, came another news to rejoice for Indians. The ISRO Human Space Flight Project will be headed by a woman, Dr VR Lalithambika, currently the Deputy Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSCC).

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Dr VR Lalithambika is a specialist of Advanced Launcher Technologies. She had joined VSCC in 1988 and has been in charge of control, guidance and simulation research work. In layman terms, it is her job to make rockets fly. Dr Lalithambika heads the team that optimises fuel systems, autopilot systems, designs the rocket computers and rocket hardware.

One of the biggest challenges of the space missions has been the design and the development of the ideal launch vehicle. India’s PSLV (Polar Satelite Launch Vehicle) was the one that carried Chandrayan and Mangalyan into space. But sending astronauts required the rocket to carry a much heavier payload and that has pushed ISRO into developing the GSLV Mk III. ISRO successfully tested the GSLV Mk III in 2014 in an experimental flight. It was later renamed as LVM-3 and ISRO successfully sent the GSAT-19 satellite into space with it in June 2017. It is Dr VR Lalithambika whose efforts have been crucial in the development of LVM-3. She was the one who had designed the Digital Auto Pilot (DAP) system that controls the GSLV MkIII. She has also worked on the Reusable Launch Vehicles or RLV. Last year, when ISRO successfully launched 104 satellites into space in a single flight of PSLV, Dr Lalithambika and her team were behind the helm too.

Dr Lalithambika is the recipient of many awards. According to a report in Deccan Chronicle, she had bagged the Space Gold Medal, 2001, ISRO individual merit award, and ISRO performance excellence award in 2013. Her research papers on propulsion technologies and control systems are frequently hailed by researchers in the field. In that article, she had stated, ” It is extremely satisfactory to work in ISRO because everyone here is allowed to voice their opinion, be it a junior or senior. Each of our missions is an example of successful execution of teamwork.”

ISRO has a rich history of many women scientists who have contributed to India’s stellar space research system. The success of the GSLV MkIII had, along with Dr Lalithambika, other scientists like Dr DS Sheela as the group Director, V Brinda as head of Control Design Division, and Structural Designer AP Beena. Women scientists like System Engineer Minal Sampath, Dr Anuradha TK, Dr Nandini Harinath, who was the Deputy Operations Director for the Mars Orbiter Mission, N Valarmathi, the project director of RISAT-1 and many, many more.

ISRO has a stellar track record when it comes to space programs. The mission, which has an estimated budget of Rs 10,000 crores, has already designed spacesuits, have tested for Atmospheric re-entry and pad-abort operations. While the entire country is hopeful of watching former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s dream come true, the fiercely talented women handling the crucial responsibilities at the mission are giving hopes to millions of girls in India that they can, literally, touch the skies.

 

 

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