Nandini Harinath: The Woman Who Took India To Mars.

This is a guest article by Radhika Bhangar from Maharashtra, India.

When someone asks you to name a scientist, you would say Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking or C V Raman. Well how many of you know Nandini Harinath? The leading rocket scientist at ISRO's (Indian Space Research Organization) Satellite Centre in Bangalore. 

Nandini Harinath

History was scripted when Indian scientists successfully put the satellite Mangalyaan into orbit around Mars. Nandini Harinath was among those scientists who achieved the feat in a record of  15 months. Along with Ritu Karidhal, Anuradha T.K, Seetha S, Minal Rohit, B Codanayaguy and Lalithambika V R. Nandini had to work hard in office and home as well, faced as they are with social discrimination, their story remains a land mark not just for Indian science, but the women behind it. 

Nandini Harinath - Project Manager is a Mission Design Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbit Mission and the Mission system leader of NISAR, a joint NASA-ISRO satellite being developed to launch in 2020. Nandini's mother was a mathematics teacher and her father was an engineer with great interest in mathematics. Together as a family, they used to watch Star Trek. Who knew an iconic American sci-fi would give her exposure to science?

Toughts of becoming a space scientist never crossed her mind. For her, ISRO "just happened" . "It was the first job I applied for and I got through it. It's been twenty years and there's been no looking back" she says with pride. Being part of Mars Orbit Mission was high point in her life, "It was very important for India, not just for ISRO. It put us on a different pedestal. Foreign countries are looking at us for collaborations and the importance and attention we received was justified," she points out.

Speaking at an event in 2015, Harinath said that there was no gender bias in ISRO, and one of the reasons that women constituted just 24 per cent of the technical workforce is that fewer number of women sought jobs there in the 1990s when she joined the organisation. Now, she says, with equal numbers coming to join, the scenario would change drastically, as it should. Harinath points to one key issue confronting women not just in India, but even in developed countries — the cultural stereotype that women are uncomfortable with maths, science and computing. In her remarks, she also cited a McKinsey study showing that men were often promoted on the basis of their potential, while women were judged on their actual accomplishments.

Nandini Harinath

Harinath says she takes “immense pride” in Mangalyaan and was “really thrilled” to see its photograph on the new 2,000 currency. But it was not an easy assignment and working days were long. In the beginning, the scientists worked about 10 hours a day, but as the launch date came closer, it went up to 12 to 14 bruising hours of work. At the time of the actual launch, they barely left office.

“During the launch, I don’t think we went home at all. We’d come in the morning, spend the day and night, probably go home for a short time the next afternoon to eat and sleep for a few hours and come back. But for an important mission like that, which is time bound, we needed to work like that. We spent many sleepless nights. We encountered lots of problems as we progressed, in the design as well as in the mission. But coming up with quick solutions and innovations was the key,” she remembers.

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"It was also the first time that ISRO allowed the public to look at what was happening inside. We were on social media, we had our own Facebook page and the world took notice. I feel proud of our achievement. Sometimes, I feel honoured and flattered, but sometimes I’m also embarrassed,” she says. “Now the way people look at you, it’s very different. People recognise you for being a scientist. And I’m enjoying it thoroughly.” she added.

The scientists are quick to dismiss it all, but equally so to credit their cooperative colleagues, supportive husbands, encouraging parents (who never let them believe that girls were any different than boys, and continue to pitch in) and in-laws for pitching in to help with their kids. They had to work real hard as her daughter was in 12th grade and her exams fell right after during the mission. She equally dedicated her time and energy to mission and also to her daughter. Indeed a superhero! 

The problem is that many highly educated women drop out before reaching leadership positions. That's the mindset we need to change. Women have to realise that they can manage having careers and families. It's possible! You can do it if you want to. The women of ISRO proved it. 

A dream doesn't become reality magically; it requires sweat, determination and hard work and Nandini Harinath is a peer example of dedication and hard work. We are proud of you!

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