On September 24, 2014, at 8:02 a.m. IST, India made history by becoming the first nation to successfully put a satellite in orbit around Mars on the first try. At that same moment, the control room erupted in cheers as scientists and engineers “broke protocol” by jumping to their feet and embracing. Photographs of the jubilant moment, like the one above, showing women in the control room wearing violet, magenta and lime saris went viral. A historic day for a major engineering achievement also became one that highlighted women in science at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Like many around the world, I was also captivated by the photograph and wanted to learn more about the women scientists and engineers at ISRO and their role in the Mars Orbiter Mission, known as MOM. Who were they? What was the journey to the space agency? What was it like working on the historic mission, especially under time and budget constraints? What is it like to work at ISRO in general? Months later, when Science Friday producer Luke Groskin approached me to create a video series for Science Friday and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute about women in science, I knew I had just the right story.
That series went on to become Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science, an anthology of six short films presented by Science Friday and HHMI featuring women in science from around the world. The first film A Re-Sounding Remedy, follows Vanderbilt Audiologists Rene Gifford and Ally Sisler-Dinwiddie and their innovative work to improve cochlear implants. Their story takes an unexpected turn when Sisler-Dinwiddie goes from Gifford’s colleague to patient after she loses her hearing. The new film, Snapshots from Afar, which I directed and co-produced with Luke Groskin, follows three of the women behind India’s Mars Orbiter Mission. Upcoming films will follow scientists working on research from cancer treatment to fluid dynamics of sneezes to polar bear ecology.
On September 19th 2016, nearly two years after the world was captivated by ISRO’s interplanetary success, I found myself driving to the front gate of ISRO’s Satellite Centre (ISAC) in Bangalore, India, to meet Nandini Harinath, Project Manager, Mission Design, and Deputy Operations Director of MOM.
Harinath told me about being inspired by Star Trek as a child as well as challenges of the MOM mission, including time, weight and budgetary restrictions. These restrictions had implications for everything from launch time to orbit trajectory to payload capabilities. MOM was built and launched within 18 months and at $74 million, cost a fraction of NASA’s $671 million Mars Maven Satellite. Over the next two days, I met Seetha Somasundarum, Program Director of the ISRO Space Science Program Office, and Minal Rohit, project manager of MOM’s Methane Sensor. Somasundaram has worked at ISRO since the 1980s is “very strict,” according to Rohit, who presented payload designs to her. Rohit spoke of the long and exciting hours as well as the teamwork behind working on MOM. Indeed, ISRO continues to achieve new scientific feats. On Wednesday, the agency successfully launched 104 satellites into space in one attempt, The Economic Times reported, breaking the record previously held by Russia.
As for the photograph, working all night and at ISRO’s tracking center (ISTRAC) on September 24, 2014 meant that Nandini Harinath, Seetha Somasundarum and Minal Rohit, were ecstatic but tired after the Mars Orbit Insertion. They didn’t make it in the photograph, but their tense moments and elation were captured on video, which is shown in the film. Watch the film in its entirety below and see the experiences of these amazing women, whom I found so captivating and inspiring.