Sirisha Bandla, who dreamed of going to space as a child, finally fulfilled it last month when she visited the edge of space on board a Virgin Galactic spacecraft with billionaire Richard Branson.
The 34-year-old, who is an aeronautical engineer and works at Virgin Galactic, spoke to Hindustan Times’ Kumkum Chadha on ‘The Interview’ about her India connect and what inspired her to pursue her dreams.
Bandla also talked about how her dream came true, what her family thought when she went to space and what she wants to do in the future.
Here are the excerpts from the interview:
‘My comfort food is mom’s chicken curry’
Bandla said she always had this dream of going to space one day. When she visited her grandparent’s house in Andhra Pradesh, she would stare at the dark night sky and wonder what lies beyond the stars.
“When I was around 15-16, my eyesight got pretty bad, past the requirements that were allowed for being an astronaut through Nasa. At that point, I was trying to figure out where I’d go. And around that same time, the contest happened which would award the prize money to a company that could build a reusable spacecraft that could go to space twice. Spaceship One did that. Around the same time, Richard Branson announced that he is creating Virgin Galactic which will open space access for all. I remember thinking that that’s just incredible, I can still be an astronaut and I’ll be working for Virgin Galactic and that’s how I’m gonna get to space,” she said.
Bandla said she was able to get a job at Virgin Galactic and her flight to space is just a testament to the company’s mission. “The company’s goal is to open space access for all and fly people from different backgrounds, different geographic regions and cultures to space,” she added.
When asked about her Indian roots and whether she now enjoys the food in the US, Bandla said, “I do love pizza but my comfort food is my mom’s chicken curry and lentil curry.”
So when did she start dreaming about becoming an astronaut? “I don’t know where it exactly manifested. I think it started with me sitting on the roof (at my grandparents’ house) and looking out at stars and wondering what’s there, what’s beyond Earth. I also love science fiction, so that definitely played a part. Star Trek – watching the crew of The Enterprise go into the unknown and make all these discoveries – I think that played a part. I did grow up a few in Houston, very close to the Johnson Space Centre. I was able to visit the space centre, listen to how astronauts described about being in space. All of that combined really instilled in me that I wanted to go and see it for myself.”Bandla said when she got the news that she had been chosen to go to space, she was really excited. “When I got the news, I ran to my husband’s office, cheering and kinda jumping around. He actually had this in the back of his mind that I was going to share some incredible news. He has been hearing me talk about nothing else but space for years and has been so supportive of the journey. He was happy for me,” she said.
He has been absolutely great in supporting everything that I need to reach my dreams. I have been travelling quite a bit, and these last few weeks, he has been taking care of everything. He has been a part of my ground support crew here on my way to space,” Bandla added.
‘Call came on weekend, I thought something was wrong at office’
“When I first got the call, I assumed something went wrong at work because the call came a little bit late, and on a weekend. I picked up the phone and our president asked if I’d be interested in being part of one of the crews that’s going to space. Without hesitation, I said yes. He said ‘Take some time, think about it’. I said ‘Okay, I’ve thought about it. Yes’,” recalled Bandla.
“It was an incredible news to get and very unexpected at the time. Besides saying yes, I couldn’t formulate any other words to encompass my feelings of excitement at that moment,” she said further.
‘Weightlessness incredible experience, we were flying’
Bandla said the entire crew had prepared for the launch and described how the hybrid vehicle system worked. “It consisted of an aircraft and a spacecraft. On the day of the flight, both were mated and then it took off together. We got up to about 45,000 feet, and the aircraft released the spacecraft. A few seconds later, the spacecraft started its rocket motor for about 60 seconds. And that’s when we felt the booster shot. We felt around three times our weight on that boost. But it was a very comfortable ride,” said Bandla.
The rocket boost took us to our apogee, and once it shut off, we felt the microgravity environment. It was an environment where Gs were very close to zero. At that point, you feel like you are flying. That’s when we unbuckled and were floating around the cabin. I also did a few somersaults, and carried out the science experiment which I was carrying with me. We then looked out of the window and that was really an incredible view and experience in itself,” the astronaut said.
She said that though the experience was surreal, it made her realise the things that she has as part of her life on Earth. “Looking at the black sky gave me a renewed appreciation of everything I’m seeing on Earth, whether it’s the blue sky or the trees on my block when I am walking,” said Bandla.
kalpana Chawla was an inspiration’
“I saw Kalpana Chawla’s career very early. I looked at what she did to go to space and really tried to model my career. That is the reason I went to Purdue University to pursue aeronautical engineering. So I think she was an inspiration. She was one of the first people that I saw that had the same skin colour that I had and came from the same country. That kind of identity that I shared with her helped reduce mental barriers I had. I hope to do the same for young women who are thinking if they can pursue a career in aerospace,” she added.
“I hope I have made Kalpana Chawla proud. I am sure she inspired many women, that was part of her legacy in addition to incredible technical achievements she’s done at Nasa and in her career,” said Bandla.
Walking on the moon
Bandla said she really wants to walk on the moon. “Maybe go to Mars too. But I also really believe in the vision of making space available for all. It has changed my life, and I think there’s a lot of other people that would like to have that same experience and may think that they do not have the opportunity. I think we’re gonna see more change in perceptions when more people go into space, people that are more diverse,” she said.
‘Hope to be a mentor’
Bandla also talked about the under-representation of women in the field of space research. She said that just about a 100 women have actually gone to space “and the number of women of colour is even less”. The 34-year-old said that she wants to change the situation and be a mentor to women who actually dream about going to space. “The way I got through it was having mentors, especially women that are in the field and have gone through a lot of what I have gone through. I hope to be that mentor for a lot of women. It’s one of the biggest piece of advices I give to women – find yourself a mentor.”
On future missions
Bandla said that one of the objectives of the Virgin Galactic mission was to study how future space expeditions can be carried out efficiently. Speaking about the comment of Nasa’s Bhavya Lal about finding clean clothes to lessen the burden of space ships, Bandla said these are the issues the entire industry is looking to tackle. “There are a lot of problems that we need to address before we go to farther destinations. Laundry is definitely one of them.”