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Marriage stopped her from going to IIT, but she still became ISRO’s top engineer

Lalithambika owes her interest in science to watching rocket launches with her grandfather

Bengaluru.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in his Independence Day speech that India would launch its first human space flight by 2022, it was celebrated as yet another giant leap on the horizon for India’s space programme.

But V.R. Lalithambika doesn’t make much of the fanfare surrounding the mission.

The ISRO veteran leading India’s human spaceflight programme says the safety of the astronauts the agency aims to send to space is her sole focus.

“The human spaceflight programme (HSP) is totally different from my previous jobs in some ways,” Lalithambika told ThePrint in her first interview since being appointed the programme’s director.

“But the basic principles don’t change. Instead of ‘mission critical’ (where a failure is just loss of objective), it will be ‘safety critical’ (where a failure is serious damage to environment or loss of life),” she added, seated at her desk at the headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Bengaluru.

A veteran control engineer, Lalithambika has been with ISRO for 30 years and has worked on every rocket in its use today. She was named the HSP director by ISRO chairman K. Sivan hours after PM Modi announced the Gaganyaan project.

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Asked about the programme, she said it was still too early to say much. “We are at the stage of evolving the policy for this programme,” she added.

Lalithambika said the team was not affected much by the public excitement around the Gaganyaan programme.

“Nothing has changed,” she added, pointing towards the young engineers seated around her in the room, engrossed in their work screens. “We are doing this interview here but they are not bothered. They have been given something to do. Their single-minded focus is a feature of ISRO.”

“I understand that there is a very strong national element involved in it, but public excitement doesn’t affect us,” she added, “Like any other ISRO programme this will be accomplished by all of us.”

Lalithambika was born in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, where she lived until her transfer to the ISRO headquarters three months ago.

Right from her growing-up days, she was surrounded by engineers — her father, uncle, and, later, her husband. But her curiosity in science was stoked by her mathematician grandfather, with whom she would watch the launch of sounding rockets from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station every Wednesday from their home.

After acquiring a degree in electrical engineering from College of Engineering, Trivandrum, Lalithambika aced the GATE exam for post-graduation admission to the IISc and IITs. “I could have gone to IIT-Madras,” she said. However, her parents and elderly grandmother were anxious to get her married. “I was an only child, you see. They fixed my marriage immediately after my engineering course,” she added.

She subsequently enrolled at the same college for an M.Tech degree. It was during this time that she had her daughter.

“I took just 41 days off and depended on a close friend, who made carbon copies of her notes and would come over for joint study sessions,” she added fondly.

Of failure and success When Lalithambika, all of 26, joined the Thiruvananthapuram-based Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in 1988, she found herself in the thick of action.

Engineers had just begun developing indigenous launch vehicles, and the first Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) launch had just failed. Three months into her job, she saw a launch fail due to a software error in the control system, the area she worked in.

“It was very challenging when I started. Everything was new, so there was no literature to refer or people willing to give us information,” Lalithambika recalled.

“Newspapers were saying that we were throwing money down the drain. The morale could have been very low at the time,” she added.

However, there was no room for dampened spirits.

Lalithambika started working on what would eventually become ISRO’s ‘workhorse’ and flagship product: The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The launch — and ISRO’s next big test — was five years later. This meant long hours at work for the team, which was doubly challenging for the young mother.

However, the PSLV launch in 1993 failed. The second attempt was scheduled for the following year, leaving less than 13 months for the engineers to prepare.

The intensity of that one year is something Lalithambika, now 56, can never forget. “You cannot imagine the kind of work we put in to make sure that nothing was left unaddressed. We had to learn from our mistakes. That has always been the culture at ISRO,” she added.

Lalithambika’s eyes lit up as she recollected the second PSLV launch, which was a success. “We were very young,” she laughed, “And it was a very thrilling experience to get such a complex system right.”

After all these years, Lalithambika insists that launch days still bring the same thrill as before.

PSLV got the next 39 launches right. Otherwise fiercely modest, this is one achievement that Lalithambika admits to being proud of.

“I was involved in the PSLV right from the beginning, especially the autopilot system,” she said, adding that this success had a lot to do with lessons learnt from the previous failures.

‘Everyone here is successful’ Lalithambika makes no bones about the fact that it is difficult to do justice to work as well as family obligations without a strong support system. “When a launch is scheduled, we stretch ourselves thin. There are personal sacrifices, but they are done with pleasure,” she added.

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