“Based on the experience we had in growing the space science community within the country, ISRO decided that we could go farther out, and go into interplanetary space and go to Mars.” These words, of Seetha Somasundaram, the program director at the ISRO Space Science Program Office, kick off a thoughtful new video about the Indian space organisation’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), narrated by three women who led various parts of the enterprise.
Directed by Emily Driscoll, the ten-minute video is at times a worm’s eye view and at others the big picture of how ISRO pieced together a mission to Mars in an astonishing 18 months, on a famously thin budget, on the back of the efforts of hundreds of scientists and engineers. At the time of the mission’s launch in November 2013, a now-famous image of a group of sari-clad female scientists embracing each other in celebration made the rounds online. It wasn’t simply an image of a group of jubilant mission scientists but a reminder of how few women there were in an organisation whose faces on television and in the news were almost always those of men.
Driscoll’s video, produced together with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and published by Science Friday, meets up with three women. They are: Somasundaram from the Space Science Program Office; Nandini Harinath, the project manager of mission design and a deputy operations director, MOM; and Minal Rohit, project manager of the Methane Sensor for Mars instrument onboard MOM. Together, they guide us through the mission, its technological and scientific salience, and ultimately its contribution to the Indian national identity.
In candid shots, Somasundaram, Harinath and Rohit continue to carry the wonder India felt when MOM successfully entered orbit around Mars on September 24, 2014, a date they say they will never forget. They also remember how they had to be exacting – strict like schoolteachers – to ensure everything eventually fell in place before launch.
Rohit takes to a maternal quip, an analogy few have struck upon before, to put things in her perspective: “The cruise to Mars, it was about nine months,” she says, awe evident in her words. “It’s like a baby is delivered, but after nine months of being taken care of in the womb.”