Mangal Within Reach: A Woman’s Perspective
Vandana M Kumar

In 1897, The War of the Worlds by HG Wells was published in instalments in the Pearson’s magazine in the UK and the Cosmopolitan in the US. It is a classic of the science fiction genre, about an unequal clash between us and invaders from Mars. But today, it isn’t the Martians who are landing on Earth but us Earthmen who are looking to establish colonies on Mars. Today interplanetary travel is no longer a figment of the imagination. Fact from fiction? And women are in no small measure contributing to these epic voyages to Mars.

Mars is the new destination in space. And the space surrounding Mars is certainly becoming crowded with, this time round, UAE’s Amal/Hope Mission, China’s Tianwen-1 and the last kid on the block but the first to land, NASA’s Perseverance. Still orbiting and operational are the oldest NASA’s Mars Odyssey (2001) as also Reconnaissance and Maven, European Space Agency’s (ESA) Express and with Roscosmos, ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. And made proudly in India, our Mangalyaan, a first for an Asian country. And on Mars itself, still transmitting are NASA’s Curiosity rover and Insight lander and other Russian landers that may be working even if not communicating.

NASA's Perseverance is safely on Mars and sending us pictures and the sounds of Mars! And it was an Indian woman, Swati Mohan - Entry, Descent, Landing (EDL) team operations lead - with red bindi representing her roots and blue streaked hair interspersed with stars as requested by her EDL team, who orchestrated Perseverance's landing. And hers was the voice to make the historic announcement, Touchdown confirmed!

According to First Post, “The successful landing of the rover was also a watershed moment as EDL, is considered the most crucial phase of a space mission. So far only 40 percent of missions sent to Mars by various space agencies have been successful. In fact, in the last 50 years, only eight landings have been successful.’’ On the NASA page, Mohan describes her role. “I am the Mars 2020 Guidance, Navigation, and Controls (GN&C) Operations Lead. The GN&C subsystem is "eyes and ears" of the spacecraft. During the cruise phase heading toward Mars, our job is to figure out how we are oriented, make sure the spacecraft is pointed correctly in space (solar arrays to sun, antenna to Earth), and manoeuvre the spacecraft to get it where we want to go. During entry, descent, and landing on Mars, GN&C determines the position of the spacecraft and commands the manoeuvers it to help it land safely. As operations lead, I am the primary point of communication between the GN&C subsystem and the rest of the project. I am responsible for the training of the GN&C team, scheduling the mission control staffing for GN&C, as well as the policies/procedures the GN&C uses in the mission control room.”

Then China's Tianwen-1 is also in orbit around Mars. Tianwen-1 means ‘Questions to Heaven’ from a poem written by Qu Yuan, a renowned poet of ancient China who lived about 340-278 BCE. It is an appropriate name for China’s first interplanetary space exploratory mission. Launched in July 2020, Tianwen-1 consists of an orbiter, lander and rover. At present, it is orbiting Mars, studying potential landing sites via its high-resolution camera for the scheduled landing in May in the Utopia basin, just north of the Mars equator. Once the rover is on Mars it will carry out scientific exploration guided by instructions and passing on information to the orbiter which will relay those as well as its own studies back to China. Its objectives include study of the atmosphere and the structure and surface of Mars. The expected lifespan of the rover is around 90 Martian days or 3 earth months while the orbiter is designed for survival of one Martian year or 687 earth days.

But although Perseverance has been in the limelight, the first to arrive in Mars space this year, as also the first Arab inter planetary space mission, the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) was launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre with the Amal Spacecraft, to coincide with 50 years of the Emirates. And a woman, Sarah-al-Amiri is deputy project manager and science lead of the Amal Mars mission. "The mission is called 'hope' because we are contributing to the global understanding of a planet," she said. "We are going above and beyond the turmoil that is now defining our region and becoming positive contributors to science." The mission is also indicative of a subtle change in the norms of that society. According to Nature, women make up 34% of the mission and 80% of its science team, significantly higher than the 28% represented in the Emirati workforce.

While the next window of opportunity will open in 2022, we have private entrepreneurs involving themselves in the journey to Mars with the world’s richest man, Elon Musk saying his SpaceX has a fighting chance of making the second transfer window in 2024 and further is “highly confident” that his company will land humans on Mars saying that it’s an achievable goal “about six years from now.” "I think it is important for humanity to become a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species. And it's going to take a lot of resources to build a city on Mars," Musk said. "I want to be able to contribute as much as possible to the city on Mars. That means just a lot of capital." On January 7, the CEO pinned a 2018 tweet to his Twitter profile, which promised to commit half of his wealth to building a city on Mars "to ensure continuation of life (of all species) in case Earth gets hit by a meteor like the dinosaurs or WW3 happens & we destroy ourselves."

And even though ISRO director, K Sivan, says our focus in the immediate future is Chandrayaan 3 and Gaganayan and our next Mars Mangalyaan, will only be an orbiter, anything can happen!! After all we were the only country in the world to be successful on our first mission to Mars in 2014 till the Emirates, Amal Mission this month. And although Mangalyaan’s expected life was 6 months, it has lasted 6 years sending thousands of pictures back to us. And the whole mission cost a frugal 450 crores ($70 million). The NASA Perseverance project is expected to cost $2.9 billion for the complete life cycle. (And to put it in context, what Google makes in 6 days according to The Planetary Society in July 2020)

Here again women like Ritu Karidhal, Nandini Harinath, Moumita Dutta and Meenal Sampat played important roles in the success of Mangalyaan. Of course both men and women are responsible for the final result. As Nandini Harinath, a project director, laughingly said, “Many times I wonder about all the attention that we women scientists are male colleagues who work equally hard also deserve it, right? But sometimes I also feel that women need those kinds of examples, so that they know it [success in science] is possible and they should not give up.” Ritu Karidhal was project director and deputy organisation manager responsible for the critical operation of leaving earth and entering Mars orbit. Moumita Dutta was project manager for the methane sensor for Mars and was responsible for the development of the complete optical system. Meenal Sampat built and tested instruments at the Space Application Centre (SAC) and at that time although women were less than 20% of ISRO’s employees there were 40% women in the Mangalyaan mission who played equal roles with men.

So although John Gay may claim Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, maybe it will be a woman who first steps onto Mars. And definitely it will be women who make it possible for men to land and live on Mars.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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