The Story of an Indian Astronaut

Sirisha Bandla says overcoming the mental barrier was great


Sirisha Bandla recalls the moment she found out she was fascinated by space. It was as a little girl growing up in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh.

“One of my earliest memories is of the blackouts, the blackouts. I remember sleeping on my grandparents’ roof. I can’t remember ever seeing stars that bright. If there is no pollution, they appear almost on your face. I think this really planted the seed of seeing stars so bright in India that it made me curious – what is out there? I wanted to be with them,” she told NDTV.

Ms. Bandla, 34, followed her dream while growing up in the United States. She couldn’t become a NASA astronaut because of poor eyesight – and instead took the path of technology. The young aerospace engineer was part of the team that completed the first-ever space flight of the billionaire’s Virgin Galactic alongside Sir Richard Branson last July.

The trip almost 90 km above the earth had made a deep impression on her.

“Looking down at Earth and seeing the thin blue line of the atmosphere really gave us perspective on how lucky we are and how fragile our planet is. It was amazing to see – I was looking at the Southwestern part of the USA. We talk about the states, but I didn’t see any borders. And it put into perspective how divided we’ve become. And seeing the glowing earth against the dull black emptiness of space made me feel small – but it didn’t make me feel insignificant. So, I returned to the planet energized to strive for positive change forever and truly grateful for what we have.

“As I reflect on this journey, the word ‘incredible’ keeps coming back to me. Astonishing. It was really an emotional feeling. A mental state. It’s hard to describe. So I can’t wait for more and more people to come and experience this transformative journey. I can’t wait until there are poets and professional communicators who can go into space and come back and talk about the experience – far more eloquently than an engineer could!”

Ms. Bandla is only the third woman of Indian descent to become an astronaut, following Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams. She knows the importance of representation – and how the achievements of these pioneers showed her and others what was possible.

“I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since I was young. And I’ve studied the careers of the Apollo astronauts and those who walked the moon. And as much as I respect what they’ve done — they’re definitely pioneers — I didn’t connect with their journey. It felt so different from my journey. And my identity. And it really wasn’t until I Dr. “It’s not just a dream. It could be an achievable goal. I’ve never met Kalpana Chawla, but she’s had such a profound impact on my life and career. Hopefully that opens up my journey.” many other people from the same perspective can see the identity and the journey for themselves,” she said.

It was big for her to break the mental barrier.

“It’s really a mental barrier. There was no physical barrier preventing me from being an astronaut. But seeing someone I could actually see myself in their shoes made it so much easier for me.”

Sirisha is Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic and was in India to attend a conference on developing the space startup ecosystem in India. A key focus was public-private partnership to accelerate space exploration and explore future opportunities in the sector.

And for Virgin Galactic, space tourism is paramount. The cost of boarding as a passenger on a Virgin Galactic flight is no small thing – it costs $450,000. But 800 people have signed up for the ride so far. So what can you expect when you scrape together the money for this ticket?

Ms Bandla said: “A lot of people think the journey begins when they take off on the runway. But the journey actually begins when you decide to become an astronaut. At Virgin Galactic, we value the customer experience. It’s our product. Once you decide to become a future astronaut with Virgin Galactic, you will be accepted into the team. Talk to people who are also starting this journey. So as soon as you decide to buy a ticket, you will be accepted into the community. If you’re about to go into space, you’ll arrive about five days ahead of time with about five days of training. The actual experience is amazing. It takes about 90 minutes. You take off from the runway like you would on a regular airplane. During the ascent you will have time to chat with your crewmates. If you are a researcher or scientist, you have time to make final preparations. After all the security checks, they detach the spaceship from the mother ship. And you’ve done a few seconds of free fall. The rocket motor lights up and you have 60 seconds of boost. As an aerospace engineer, we’re talking about the microgravity part on Earth, but that boost phase when I’ve had the power of the rocket motor behind me and I can see the sky in the window that I see every day. The blue sky fading into the black of space…it’s an incredible moment that’s burned into my memory.”

Another question for potential space tourists: even if you have the money, do you have to be a young gypsy rat with zero percent body fat? What if your fitness is below Olympic level?

Ms. Bandla laughed and said, “I’m not a young fitness rat with no body fat! I was disqualified (from being a NASA astronaut) because of my eyesight, so at that point I decided to take the non-traditional route of commercial space – which is becoming the norm, the method we all use for space travel. Part of opening up space to everyone is not restricting who can go.

There is of course a lot of physical preparation. Ms. Bandla loved the pre-flight microgravity experience.

“Part of the training consisted of doing a parabolic flight and experiencing microgravity. Making sure we’re comfortable in microgravity. I was made for Zero G. I was made to float around. I love it! It’s my environment. ,” She said.

The space flights are also an opportunity for researchers to conduct their own experiments, Sirisha said. “Another part of access to space involves science and research. For scientists and researchers, this is an opportunity they don’t get. Usually you have a payload of a science experiment and you take it to an agency like ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization), NASA – and they send it into space and you collect the data. But now with suborbital systems, a researcher can conduct field research in space. You can continue with your experiment,” she said.

“I picked up plants. Basically, they were genetically engineered to express specific genes in response to the environment. We looked at what genes are expressed in microgravity, in high gravity, and also compared it to 1G. So that in the future When astronauts travel to the moon or to Mars, they will have fresh food. Also, we have learned from the data collected that you can help the people on Earth. Communities that are badly affected by climate change ensure food security for communities. “

Ms Bandla believes competition in space tourism will drive down the cost of the experience. Speaking of competition, how did Virgin Galactic feel as they beat Elon Musk and his SpaceX by taking Richard Brandon to the edge of space in front of the billionaire?

“I think it was a good win for everyone. It’s not like Richard Branson was the first. It was a milestone for the company that we could send people into space in the cabin. Galactic is a manned space flight company “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a test flight or a flight with customers – there are always two pilots. I don’t like the term race. For us we weren’t races. We wouldn’t do anything if.” We weren’t ready because we know the value of human life, team and processes and we see safety as the foundation of our culture. It was really a timing coincidence that we flew in July and other companies flew behind us. ‘ Sirisha said.

The two billionaires also have very different personalities. “He (Branson) is such a good guy,” Ms. Bandla said. “I learned so much from his crewmate. He is a Customer Experience Architect. He has done this successfully in so many of his companies. For him to be on the flight, giving feedback, making the first trip for him to experience and relaying to all customers has been a great data point for us,” she noted.

Richard Branson has considerable flight and hotel experience which Ms. Bandla says is a great asset to the experience on offer. “Richard is the king of hospitality! What we offer is a space flight – but it’s a customer experience.”

She also says companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX – while their goals are different – can work together for the benefit of the sector.

“Each product is different. Richard and Virgin Galactic are focused on a holistic customer experience. A journey that begins long before the vehicle takes off on the runway. Space X, Elon Musk – his focus is on making humans a multiplanetary species. He’s working on vehicles that will take us to Mars, that will settle us on Mars. So they are really different products. But again – the competition is very healthy. We focus on travel, space tourism activities. Space X has been performing satellite launches and has been a NASA contractor for many of its missions. But honestly, we’re working with the space community, especially on the policy side, to create policies that are conducive to innovation and private sector capabilities.

Ms. Bandla hopes her journey will help encourage other young girls who dream of space to take to the field.

And would she rise again?

“I got out of the spaceship. The first thing that happened was that I saw my father and he hugged me tightly. And the second thing I saw was my CEO – and I said, ‘Wow! Sign me up – I’m ready!”

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