When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India's first human space flights mission on a rocket built by ISRO on Independence Day last week, a widely-appreciated clause was his promise that it could be a "son or a daughter" who would take the Indian flag to outer space. At the Indian Space Research Organisation or ISRO, a part of PM Modi's promise has already been kept. The space agency has deputed Dr VR Lalithambika, an experienced engineer, to head the astronaut program.
A skilled taskmaster, control systems engineer Dr Lalithambika has spent three decades at ISRO and has been tasked to send an Indian astronaut in space by 2022.
She has worked on all Indian rockets Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and indigenous space shuttle. The 56-year-old studied in Kerala and has two children.
ISRO Chief Dr K Sivan said, "At ISRO, we choose people to head programs based on competence and Dr Lalithambika has the right set of skillsets to lead the human space program."
Other colleagues at ISRO endorsed Dr Lalthambika's leadership qualities.
It may well be that on the first flight into space from Sriharikota, India may use its highly-skilled test pilots from the Indian Air Force.
The only Indian citizen to have flown into space is Wing Commander (Retd) Rakesh Sharma who flew into space in 1984 on a Russian mission. Since then, two women of Indian origin but American citizens Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams have also flown into space.
Indian women engineers have a glowing past in India's rocket programmes. It was India's "Agniputri" Tessy Thomas who ably led the Agni-4 and Agni 5 missile programmes. Dr Shashikala Sinha headed the program to secure India from incoming ballistic missiles. Both work at the Defenece Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). In addition, the seniormost official at DRDO, Dr J Manjula, an avionics expert, is tipped to head the DRDO next.