Sirisha Bandla remembers the moment she learnt that she was fascinated by space. It was as a little girl, growing up in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district.
“One of my earliest memories is that of the power outages, the blackouts. I remember sleeping on my grandparents’ roof top. I don’t ever remember seeing stars so bright. When there is no pollution, they seem like they are almost on your face. I think that is what really planted the seeds, seeing stars in India so bright it made me curious – what is out there? I wanted to be among them,” she told NDTV.
Ms Bandla, 34, followed her dream as she grew up in the United States. She couldn’t be a NASA astronaut due to poor eyesight – and took the engineering route instead. The young aerospace engineer was part of the team that went up with Sir Richard Branson in the first-ever space flight of the billionaire’s Virgin Galactic last July.
The ride to almost 90 km above the earth had a profound effect on her.
“Looking at the earth and seeing the thin blue line of the atmosphere really brought a perspective of how lucky we are and how fragile our planet is. It was incredible to see – I was looking out at the southwestern part of the US. We talk about the states, but I saw no borders. And it put into perspective how divided we have become. And seeing the brilliant earth against the matte black void of space made me feel small – but it didn’t make me feel insignificant. So, I returned to the planet energised to pursue positive change for good and really appreciative of what we have.
“I reflect on that trip and I keep coming back to the word ‘incredible’. Amazing. It was really an emotional feeling. A mental state. It is hard to describe. Which is why I can’t wait till more and more people can experience this transformative journey. I can’t wait until there are poets and professional communicators that go into space and can come back and talk about the experience – much more eloquently than an engineer could!”
Ms Bandla is only the third Indian-origin woman to become an astronaut after 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 have wanted to be an astronaut since I was young. And I was studying the careers of the Apollo astronauts and those that set foot on the moon. And much as I respect what they did – they are definitely pioneers – I didn’t connect with their journey. It felt so different from my journey. And my identity. And it really wasn’t till I saw Dr Kalpana Chawla – an incredible woman, a pioneer that I shared an identity with, where I saw becoming an astronaut wasn’t just a dream. It could be a goal that is attainable. I never met Kalpana Chawla but she has had such a profound effect on my life and my career. Hopefully, my journey puts that same perspective for so many other people where they can see the identity and the journey for themselves,” she said.
For her, tackling the mental barrier was big.
“It really is a mental barrier. There wasn’t a physical barrier keeping me from being an astronaut. But seeing someone where I could actually see myself in their shoes made it so much easier for me.”
Sirisha is Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Ops at Virgin Galactic and was in India to attend a conference on the development of the Space Start-up Ecosystem in India. One focus area was public-private partnership to fast-track space research and to look at future possibilities in this sector.
And for Virgin Galactic, space tourism is the priority. The cost to go up as a passenger in a Virgin Galactic flight is no small change – it costs $450,000. But 800 people have signed up for the ride so far. So, what can you expect if you scrape together the money for this ticket?
Ms Bandla said, “A lot of people think the journey starts when they take off on the runway. But the journey actually starts when you decide you want to become an astronaut. At Virgin Galactic we value the customer experience. It is our product. As soon as you decide you want to become a future Astronaut with Virgin Galactic- you are taken on the team. Talk to people who are also going on that journey. So as soon as you decide to buy a ticket you are introduced into the community. When you are about to go into space, you will arrive about five days ahead of time with about five days of training. The actual experience is incredible. It is about 90 minutes. You take off from the runway like you would on a normal airliner. During the climb up you have time to talk to your crew mates. If you are a researcher or scientist, you have time to do some final preparation. After all the safety checks, they release the spacecraft from the mothership. And you have a few seconds of free fall. Then the rocket motor lights up and you have 60 seconds of boost. As an aerospace engineer – we talk about the micro gravity portion on earth, but that boost phase when I had the power of the rocket motor behind me, and I can see in the window the sky I see every day. The blue sky transitions into the black of space… it is an incredible moment that is etched into my memory.”
Another question for potential space tourists – even if you have the money, do you have to be a young gym rat with zero per cent body fat? What if your fitness is less than Olympic level?
Ms Bandla laughed and said, “I am not a young gym rat with zero body fat! I was disqualified (from becoming a NASA astronaut) because of my eyesight so I chose at that point to take the non-traditional route of commercial space – which is becoming the norm, the method we all use for space travel. A part of opening up space for all is not putting limitations on who can go.”
There is of course a lot of physical preparation. Ms Bandla loved the pre-flight experience of micro gravity.
“Part of the training was going on a parabolic flight and experiencing micro gravity. Making sure we were comfortable moving around in micro gravity. I am made for Zero G. I am made for floating around. I love it! It is my environment.,” she said.
The space flights are also an opportunity for researchers to carry out their own experiments, Sirisha said. “Another part of access to space is on the science and research side. For scientists and researchers, this is an opportunity they don’t get. Typically, you have a payload of a scientific experiment, and you take it to an agency like ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), NASA – and they send it up to space and you collect the data. But now with sub-orbital systems, a researcher can conduct field research in space. You can go with your experiment,” she said.
“I had taken up plants. Basically, they were genetically modified to express certain genes in response to the environment. We were looking at which genes were expressed in micro gravity, in high gravity and also comparing it to 1G. So that in the future when astronauts take trips to the moon or to Mars, they will have fresh food. Also, what we learnt from that data being collected is that you can help people on earth. Communities that are hit hard by climate change provide food security for communities.”
Ms Bandla believes that competition in space tourism will bring down the cost of the experience. Speaking of competition – what was the feeling in Virgin Galactic when they beat Elon Musk and his SpaceX by getting Richard Branson to the edge of space before the billionaire?
“I think it was a good win for everybody. It’s not that Richard Branson was the first. It was a milestone for the company that we were able to send people to space in the cabin. Galactic is a human space flight company. It doesn’t matter if it is a test flight or a flight with customers – there are always two pilots. So, I don’t like the term race. For us, we weren’t racing. We weren’t going to do anything if we weren’t ready, because we know the value of human life, the team and processes, and we put safety as the foundation of our culture. It was really a coincidence in timing that we flew in July and other companies flew after us,” Sirisha said.
The two billionaires do also have very different personalities. “He (Branson) is such a good guy,” said Ms Bandla. “I have learnt so much from being his crew mate. He is a customer experience architect. He has done it successfully in so many of his companies. His being on the flight, providing feedback, taking the first trip so that he can experience it and pass it on to all of the customers was a great data point for us,” she remarked.
Richard Branson does have considerable airline and hotel experience which, Ms Bandla said is a huge advantage for the experience they are offering. “Richard is the king of hospitality! What we are providing is a space flight – but it is a customer experience.”
She also says companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX – although their aims are different – can work together for the benefit of the sector.
“Every product is different. Richard and Virgin Galactic are focusing on a holistic customer experience. A journey that starts well before the vehicle starts on the runway. Space X, Elon Musk – his focus is to get human beings to be a multi-planetary species. He is working on vehicles that will get us to Mars, that will settle us on Mars. So, it is really different products. But again – competition is very healthy. We focus on journeys, space tourism activities. Space X has been doing satellite launches and it has been a contractor for NASA for a lot of their missions. But honestly, the space community, especially on the policy side, we work together to create policies that are conducive to innovation and private sector capabilities.”
Ms Bandla hopes her journey will help encourage other young girls dreaming of space to enter the field.
And would she go up again?
“I got off the space craft. The first thing that happened was I saw my dad and he gave me the biggest hug. And the second thing, I saw my CEO – and I said – ‘Wow! Let’s go again!’ Sign me up – I’m ready!”