A version of this article was originally published on Backchannel.
On November 5, 2013, India launched a rocket carrying an orbiter destined for Mars. More than half of all Mars missions attempted in the past had failed and no space research organisation had ever succeeded on its first attempt. Mangalyaan, the first interplanetary mission in the Indian Space Research Organisation’s history, was a huge gamble.
What’s more, ISRO had very little funding: while NASA’s Mars probe, Maven, cost $651 million, the budget for this mission was $74 million. The budget for the movie “The Martian” was $108 million. Oh, and ISRO launched built and launched its rocket in a mere 18 months.
A few months and several million kilometres later, the orbiter prepared to enter Mars’ gravity. This was a critical moment. If it approached at the wrong angle, off by so much as one degree, it would either crash into into the surface of Mars or fly right past it, lost to the emptiness of space.
Back on Earth, the team of scientists and engineers waited for a signal from the orbiter. The culmination of thousands of hours of intense effort and a lifetime of dreams.
Girls gained new heroes, that wear sarees and tie flowers in their hair and send rockets into space.
As a child, Minal Rohit had followed space missions on TV. Now, she waited for news on the orbiter that she and her colleague, Moumita Dutta, had helped engineer.
Mission designer Ritu Karidhal had worked for 48 hours straight, fueled by adrenaline and anticipation.
When the signal finally arrived, the mission control room broke into celebration.
If you work in such a room, deputy operations director Nandini Harinath says, “you no longer need to watch a thriller movie to feel the thrill in life. You feel it in your day-to-day work.”
An image of the scientists celebrating in the mission control room went viral. Girls in India and beyond gained new heroes: the kind that wear sarees and tie flowers in their hair and send rockets into space.
The rocket is going to leave. It’s not going to wait for anyone.
When Moumita Dutta was in the ninth grade, she found the subject of light fascinating. That obsession led her to study engineering. In 2006, she was in Kolkata when she read in a newspaper that India was preparing to launch its first moon mission.
It was a chance to make up for an opportunity India had missed a half century earlier: ISRO had been established in the late '60s, in the midst of the race to the moon, but as a newly created organisation in a nascent country with limited resources, the agency did not participate. India’s 2008 mission to the Moon was a long time in the making, as historic as it was groundbreaking. “I thought the people who worked on it were so fortunate,” she says. Moumita left the offer of a PhD abroad and moved halfway across the country to join ISRO's lunar mission.
When ISRO announced the Mars mission in 2012, its primary objective was to develop the capability to enter Mars’ gravity, and once there, conduct scientific experiments. Considering the agency's still limited resources, the mission would have to be completed in record time. The rocket had to be launched when the distance between Earth and Mars was shortest, in mid-2013, leaving only 18 months to plan, build, and test everything onboard.
The orbiter could carry 5 sensors to carry out scientific experiments. The caveat: they would have to weigh under 15 kilograms, or 33 pounds, put together.
“We were building something that had never been built before, so everyday was a new challenge.”
Moumita knew sensors. Now, she was tasked with building and testing a first-of-its-kind scientific instrument to detect methane on Mars. It turns out the sensor Moumita worked on couldn’t have been more timely. In 2014, NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, detected a spike in methane in its immediate surroundings. Since the presence of methane could indicate that either life or water were once present on Mars, it was an exciting discovery.
But drawing meaningful conclusions requires a scientific instrument that can detect even the smallest amounts of methane on the entire surface of Mars, over all seasons, for several years. Searching through the collected data would be “like searching for god,” as Moumita puts it, “of course, god, in this case, is our scientific objective.”
Moumita had worked on a number of payloads prior to this mission, but this was a different beast. “We were building something that had never been built before, so everyday was a new challenge.”
The team concluded that their best shot at recording those fine measurements lay in a choice of an optical filter that had never been flown in interplanetary missions: an etalon.
The etalon was so critical to the success of the entire mission that the chairman and directors of ISRO were in attendance as it was tested. Under the watchful eyes of her bosses, a nervous Moumita began the trial run. “I put the etalon in the test setup, anxious to see whether it’d give me the performance we were looking for,” she says.
It did. The sensor would fly to Mars, and it would have Moumita’s touch. All that remained were months of 18-hour days to make sure the mission launched on its absurdly optimistic timelines.
“There are long hours,” she says, “but whenever I think that the sensor I am working on will benefit my countrymen, it feels worth it.”
“When fiction turns to reality, you won’t know.”
India is its contradictions. One India lets girls grow up to be rocket scientists, the other doesn’t even guarantee them basic rights. One India follows the shortest trajectory to Mars, the other remains inaccessible by road.
Growing up in the '80s in the small town of Rajkot, Minal Rohit watched the launch of a satellite on television. It was so exciting, she thought, “kaam karna hai toh aisa karna hai.” If I’m going to work, it has to be on something like this.
For ambitious and driven women, India can be claustrophobic and a career can be an act of rebellion. Minal’s parents never let that culture pervade their home. When it was suggested that she not pursue further education — “How would she get a suitable match for marriage?” — her father would have none of it. “My dad was adamant,” she says. He said, “she’ll find a match herself if she doesn’t get one, but my daughter will study.”
For ambitious women, India can be claustrophobic and a career can be an act of rebellion.
Even so, engineering was an unusual career choice in Rajkot at the time, particularly for women, and Minal decided medicine might be more appropriate. When she didn’t clear the medical entrance exams, they encouraged her to try her hand at engineering instead.
Minal started her career at ISRO providing rural India access to medical and education facilities using the agency’s communication satellites. She was fortunate to have the support of her parents, as well as her husband. But her drive was not sated. “Life is comfortable, so I have to find ways to break out of my comfort zone again and again in my work,”she says. Otherwise, “when fiction turns into reality, you won’t know.”
The Mars mission was so far out of the comfort zone, it was barely conceivable.
The impossible timeline forced innovation. A regular mission is like a relay race. Subsystem teams, like Moumita’s optics team, build their devices and hand them over to the systems integration team. That group ensures that all subsystems — optics, electronics, mechanics — work well together and meet the overall performance criteria. Then, the system is integrated onto a model of the orbiter which undergoes strenuous testing. The orbiter that finally flies into space is a replica of this model.
“Think of it like the elder son and the younger son,” says Minal. “The younger son gets all the attention whereas elder son has to undergo all the hardship. So if the elder son clears rigorous tests, it means the younger one will definitely clear too. Generally, only once the qualification model is finished will the flight model be thought about.”
But that was not the case with the Mars mission, which simply could not afford the time that a relay process would require. It was more of a juggling act. “The qualification model and flight model were being built in parallel,” says Minal.
Her role was to help integrate the components of the methane sensor into a finely tuned scientific instrument. Normally all of her work would have been done in the qualification model, with a margin for errors that could have been corrected in the final flight model. But due to the ridiculously short deadline, that margin didn’t exist. “In space, no mistake is acceptable,” she says. “We call it zero defect.”
Usually, when subsystems arrive at Minal’s desk to be integrated, they’ve been fully tested and certified by subsystem engineers. In this mission, Minal recalls, “they were still being tested by subsystem teams. So we had to trust orally, without documents or certificates, just from the engineer saying, ‘ok, I’ve tested it my way, now you take it.’ That’s all!” She adds, laughing, “I was praying to god that when I press the on button, it should switch on, and not blast something!”
There were no blasts on Minal’s desk. The orbiter could be readied for the one that counted: the blast-off into space.
“I would look at the darkness and wonder what lay beyond it.”
The average distance between Earth and Mars is 225 million kilometres. This means that a signal from the Mars orbiter takes 12 minutes to arrive at ground control. Twelve excruciating minutes before you potentially know something is wrong, and another 12 before your command to correct it reaches the orbiter. If your orbiter is on the brink of disaster, that 24-minute turnaround will probably be fatal.
That’s why a Mars orbiter requires the ability to operate autonomously. Mission designer Ritu Karidhal led the design and development of this system. “It is like the human brain. It receives signals from sensors like your eyes, ears, and nerve endings. If there is a problem anywhere in your body, your brain reacts immediately. That is what we had to build for the orbiter in ten months, from scratch. We had to take each element — sensors, activators, motors — and understand how it may behave or misbehave.”
When Ritu first became interested in space she didn’t quite realize it would be so technical. Then again, she was only three years old. “I used to ask why the moon was growing bigger and smaller. I would look at the darkness and wonder what lay beyond it,” Ritu recalls. “I thought space science was just about astronomy, watching stars. In reality, it’s very technical work.”
On launch day in November 2013, as Ritu stared at the monitors in the mission control room, her autonomous system was being prepared to play its vital role in Mangalyaan's progress.
Also in the room was Nandini Harinath, the mission's deputy operations director.
Nandini would return from mission control at midnight, and be up again by 4 am to help her daughter study.
There wasn’t one particular moment that triggered Nandini’s interest in science. “My mother was a maths teacher, my father is a great lover of physics. I think for me, science has just always been there,” Nandini says. Maths was such a frequent topic of conversation at home, Nandini reckons she was familiar with it before she had even learnt to speak. She remembers studying the constellations with her father until she could recognise the different stars in Bangalore’s night sky. “Of course, I didn’t think I’d ever join ISRO, but 21 years ago, it just happened.”
For Mangalyaan, Nandini did the math to determine the trajectory that should take it to Mars. During takeoffs, Nandini says, “I always have butterflies in my stomach.”
Once the orbiter launched, the team had to perform critical operations to get it to leave Earth’s gravity for Mars. As Nandini describes them, they “were a one-time affair. You do it right, or you don’t.”
The orbiter followed a predetermined slingshot-like path, revolving around Earth six to seven times, firing the engines with each revolution, until finally, it gained enough velocity to leave Earth’s sphere of influence at precisely the right angle toward the red planet.
The first phase of the mission was over. Nine months later, the orbiter would be ready to enter a new world: Mars.
While Nandini was being tested on the Mars mission, her daughter was taking her final high school exams. Nandini would return from mission control at midnight, and be up again by 4 am to help her daughter study.
At mission control, Nandini worked to make sure that the Mars probe followed the trajectory that she had helped calculate. If the capsule veered from the planned path to the red planet, her team would have to step in and correct its course.
But on September 24, 2014, there would be no opportunity for adjustments: it was time for Mangalyaan to fly itself, using the autonomous system that Ritu helped design. At 7 am that morning, the orbiter sent out a signal confirming that it was ready to enter Mars’ gravity.
Twenty-one minutes later, as planned, the engine started firing. Four minutes after that, the signal stopped. The orbiter had gone behind Mars. If its angle of approach was off by even a degree, Mangalyaan would never be heard from again.
“Every minute,” Ritu recalls, “we were keeping track of data to try and calculate if an anomaly was occurring.” But of course there was no way to alter the mission itself. For the next 26 minutes, Ritu and Nandini’s teams waited in the complete silence of the mission control room.
Then, at 8 am, a signal arrived on Earth. And the world saw the celebration, not only of Indian science, but of the amazing women at its center.
If you’re reaching for the stars, you cannot build a glass ceiling between Earth and space.
Astrophysicist Vera Rubin, who discovered dark matter, famously wrote that she had three basic assumptions concerning women in science:
“There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.
Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.
We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women.”
Nandini sadly agrees that this is still the case for most women in India. “Maybe it’s our culture,” she says. “It puts so much pressure on the woman that even if she’s ambitious and has the talent to go far, she cannot unless she has full support at home.”
Yet the women of ISRO may have an impact on that. These heroes credit their opportunities to permission and support, silent or otherwise, from their parents. The rolls of the Indian space agency indicate that others are following. Today, says Moumita, “The number of women in space science at ISRO has skyrocketed in the last few years. This shows that there is more support for women joining such work.”
Indeed, almost a quarter of ISRO’s technical staff today is women. There’s a long way to go but space missions are so tricky that all hands — all brains — must be on deck.
If you’re reaching for the stars, you cannot build a glass ceiling between Earth and space.
That is what propels orbiters into space and scientists into the limelight. And then the cycle can continue — a relay race whose time has come. As girls see the sarees in mission control and realize that they can do this, too.
“If you have a true wish, you will get to it, either this way or that way,” says Minal Rohit, whose sensor continues to measure methane on Mars. “I always say, keep short term goals so you can find the motivation to meet them. Then, keep a bottom-line goal somewhere in your brain, a clear statement of what you want in life. One big dream, many small dreams.”
“Helping the common man is my big dream,” she says, “Mars was a small dream. Now I think: what next?”
The sky is not the limit.
Ipsita Agarwal is a journalist and product manager. She writes long-form narrative pieces (like this one!) that are based on people doing interesting work in various fields. Here's her mailing list.