One of India’s proudest moments in 2014 was the successful entering of the Mangalyaan into the Mars Orbit. The worldwide recognition and praise for this achievement on India’s first attempt and at the cost of just $70 million, a smaller budget than that required to make the film ‘Gravity,’ finally signalled the arrival of Indian space ambitions, and the other achievements that have followed have been just as inspiring whether it’s the launching of our own satellite navigation system or launching commercial rockets for other nations.
However, despite the fact that the unprecedented success of the Mars Mission shed some much-needed spotlight on Indian space scientists and projects right here, it’s interesting to note that we’ve been part of the space race for decades now, even if it hasn’t been on home turf. The National Aeronautics And Space Agency (NASA) has long since relied on the expertise of individuals from varied nationalities and ethnicities and Indians have played a major strategic role in the agency’s space exploration efforts.
To start with, here are nine brilliant minds who have pushed scientific boundaries and played key roles in space-related discoveries and missions for NASA. They range from record-setting astronauts to program mangers and decorated researchers, all of whom have played a major role in re-defining man’s understanding of the Universe.
I. Ashwin Vasavada, Exploring Mars Via The Curiosity Rover
Role: Project Scientist For Mars Rover Curiosity Rover Mission at NASA
Ashwin Vasavada was recently named Project Scientist for NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity, thereby placing him in charge of a team of nearly 500 researchers around the globe. A former Deputy Project Scientist for the mission, he has spent more than a decade on the Mars Science Laboratory and knows the mission and its sub-system in a way that few others do. Vasavada, with his experience, was also a part of several spacecraft missions by NASA such as the Galileo Mission to Jupiter, the Cassini Mission to Saturn, Mars Polar Lander, and Mars Odyssey, and is excited about his new and challenging role. “Not just once-in-a lifetime experience, but one that many people never even get. It’s going to be an incredible few years, and worth whatever it takes.” Vasavada told Space.com
II. Sharmila Bhattacharya, Studying The Human Body In Space
Role: Director of Research In The Biomodel Performance Laboratory of the Space Bio-sciences Division, NASA Ames Research Centre.
Nigerian-born Sharmila Bhattacharya has a Master’s and Doctorate degree in molecular biology from Princeton University and has conducted post-doctoral research in neurobiology at Stanford University. Her research at NASA has involved studying immune system changes during spaceflight and the effects of radiation and altered gravity on living systems, which is conducted by studying the effect of space on fruit-flies and yeast. The field of astro-bionics creates and provides innovative, technological solutions for NASA’s human exploration and challenges of a life in space and as the director of research, she is responsible for overseeing that the research conducted is in accordance with NASA standards.
III. Sunita Williams, Ranked Second In USA Endurance List Of Female Astronauts
Role: Astronaut with Two International Space Station Trips. Now part of NASA’s Manned Mars Mission Goal.
Sunita Williams became a household name in India, being only the second Indian-American Female Astronaut at NASA. But what helped her gain international recognition was when she set the record of the longest cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut with 50 hours and 40 minutes on seven Extra-Vehicular Activities as well as the longest spaceflight by a woman. Although she was born and brought up in the United States, India and her influences have always been close to her heart as she revealed on her visit to India in 2013. She took a copy of the Upanishads and a copy of the Bhagvad Gita to space to reflect and read, and even took samosas to space! Sunita is all set to be a part of NASA’s commercial launches which will culminate into the mission to land an American on Mars by 2030. She will be working with Space X and Boeing in designing and studying the systems required for launches from the International Space Station.
IV. Kalpana Chawla, The First Indian Woman In Space
Role: Astronaut On Columbia Shuttle Missions
Few names have captured the collective imagination of Indians in the past two decades as much as Kalpana Chawla. Kalpana was born in Karnal, Punjab, and went on to obtain a degree in aero-nautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College. She emigrated to the United States and became a naturalised citizen in the 1980′s. After procuring subsequent degrees from the University of Colorado and Texas, she started working for the NASA Ames Centre. She was selected as an Astronaut candidate in 1994 and went for her first mission in 1997 on Colombia STS-87, becoming the first Indian woman to go to space.“When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system,” she remarked after her first space mission. Sadly, her second mission on-board Columbia STS 107 ended up being her last, when the space shuttle depressurised and broke while returning into the atmosphere and ended up killing everyone on board. They will all continue to be remembered and revered for their impact on space research.
V. Dr. Kamlesh Lulla, Helping Astronauts Land Safely Through Remote Sensing
Role: Director of the University Research, Collaboration and Partnership Office at Johnson Space Centre
One of the most celebrated scientists at NASA, Vadodara born Dr. Lulla is said to have his office walls covered more with awards than paint. With more than 27 years of work experience at NASA, Lulla has helped astronaut crews through the development of astronaut-directed Earth remote sensing and even served as the lead scientist for Earth-looking payloads. A prolific author, he has taken part in various initiatives to spread space exploration knowledge and interest besides writing several scientific and technical papers and books.
VI. Dr. Meya Meyappan, Creating Nano technology For Future Space Exploration
Role: Chief Scientist for Exploration Technology at NASA Ames Research Centre
A nanotechnology expert, Dr. Meya Meyappan has authored and co-authored more than 275 articles in peer-reviewed journals and has gone on to make over 200 seminars/lectures at universities all around the world. A highly decorated nano-scientist and expert with numerous awards, Meyappan won the IEEE Pioneer Award in 2011 for his cutting-edge contribution in carbon nano-tube application development. A team of scientists, including Meyappan, was responsible for convincing the US Congress to fund the nano-technology program in the country in its very nascent stages, and currently oversees all the future progress made by NASA in applying nano-technology to Space.
VII. Dr. Anita Sengupta, Creating A State of Matter And Landing Rovers
Role: Project Manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Anita’s childhood fascination with science fiction and curiosity lead her to a career as a project manager in Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She was responsible for designing the 70 foot parachute that slowed the descent of the Curiosity Rover into Mars in March 2012, but her most exciting breakthrough has come in creating a state of matter called the Bose-Einstein Condensate, which will soon debut on the International Space Station in the latter half of 2016 as a part of NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory. She is also a strong advocate for inclusion of more women in the field and believes, “Space exploration and related scientific endeavours don’t have to be the stuff of white men in lab coats.”
VIII. Dr. Madhulika Guhathakurta, Leading The World’s First Mission To The Sun
Role: Lead Program Scientist for Living With A Star
Fondly known as Dr Lika, she was born in India and received her Masters in Astrophysics from University of Delhi and Ph.D. in Physics from University of Denver and University of Colorado at Boulder. She has directed and managed science programs and has built instruments for spacecrafts, but is most famous for leading the cause of Heliophysics – the study of the Sun and its effect on the Solar System in NASA. A dedicated Solar program is being developed under her guidance and leadership.
IX: Dr Suresh B Kulkarni, ‘Rocket Man’ with 55 Successful NASA Rocket Launches
Role: Vice President Of Engineering at Thiokol Space Division
Dr Suresh B Kulkarni leads a quiet life of a retirement after spending a lifetime creating rocket components and ensuring their successful execution and launch. Dubbed as the ‘Rocket Man’ by friends and family for his penchant to keep talking about rockets, missiles and space launches, Kulkarni has been recognised by NASA for 55 successful NASA Rocket launches under the Space Shuttle Program. The IIT Kharagpur graduate who worked with private company Thiokol till 2003 has also been on Bill Clinton’s Space Launch Broad Area Review, as well as having designed several Rocket and Missile components for initiatives including the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile System.