Kinzah Khan examines the role of representation at the Indian Space Research Organisation, and beyond.
In my opinion, the 2017 Oscars had the best collection of Best Picture nominations in recent memory. Lion, Hacksaw Ridge and Moonlight were probably my top three, but in the mix was a film that was not necessarily a favourite to win, but was potentially my favourite out of the bunch: Hidden Figures. It’s a true story based on mathematician Katherine Johnson, supervisor Dorothy Vaughan, and engineer Mary Jackson, the three black women who worked on the first NASA space launch. These women’s contributions were crucial to the success of the mission, but it took them over 50 years to be publicly credited. Their fight against racism and sexism revealed so much about how deeply rooted prejudice was (and still is) in American society, even in top industries and programmes; it showed how even the most educated, sophisticated intellects still lacked basic common sense when it came to making prejudice judgements, but also how the repercussions of those judgements do not have to be tolerated.
The movie shows the women working at NASA, and how they had to fight against discrimination, such as facing a 45-minute walk to the bathroom and having to use a separate coffee machine. Also, as a side note, I think it’s worth mentioning that the highlight of the move is Taraji P. Henson screaming at a room full of white men after having been soaked in the rain from running to the bathroom, and then being asked why she was late coming back to work. Even if you don’t want to see the movie, just Google that scene. Ten out of ten, would recommend.
Hidden Figures got me thinking: if it took three women over 50 years to be credited and appreciated in the American space programme, then how many other Hidden Figures are there? How many other uncredited minorities could there be, who work so hard to educate themselves, contribute to the success of their country and then just get overlooked?
Well, I had a look, as usual focusing my attention on as the Asian sub-continent. Seeing as my last two pieces revolved around Pakistan, I decided to check in on our neighbour to the East. In 2014, the Indian Space Research Organisation historically launched a satellite to orbit Mars. The mission, known as Mangalyaan, was a success and brought a tumultuous amount of pride and inspiration to India. Naturally, the mission took a huge team of scientists and mathematicians alike, but I’m going to focus only on three (I know profiles can be quite boring, so I’ll keep them short).
Meet India’s Hidden Figures:
Ritu Karidhal – Senior Scientist at ISRO and Deputy Director of Operations of the Mars Mission
During her time in school, Ritu Karidhal was infatuated with space organisations. She collected newspaper clippings tracking the activities of the Indian Space Research Organisation and NASA. She completed an MS. in Physics from Lucknow University, then an MTech from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and got the opportunity to enrol herself in the Indian Institute of Science to achieve her master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, taking assertive steps towards achieving a dream that had been shaped at a very young age and to do something outside of what may have been expected of her.
In 1997, Ritu’s dream came true as she joined the ISRO. Twenty years later, she has played a key role in many missions from India’s space organisation, holding the prestigious title of Senior Scientist and Deputy Director of Operations, as well as having published more than 20 papers in both International and National publications.
Nandini Harinath – Deputy Director of Operations of the Mars Mission
Nandini Harinath was brought up on science fiction movies, reading books and watching Star Trek, yet she never initially saw herself working for ISRO. Clearly Star Trek had a significant influence on her as, from a relatively young age, she became an integral part of the ISRO team. In an interview on medium.com, Nandini noted the inclusion of women at ISRO and that she had never felt like she had been treated differently for being a woman within the organisation. She actively encourages young girls to get involved with STEM projects, telling them to have passion to drive that dream.
ISRO was the first job Nandini applied for. She now has 20 years’ worth of experience under her belt as a rocket scientist at the organisation.
Anuradha TK – Geosat Programme Director at Isro Satellite Centre
Anuradha TK has been described as a dynamic women and actively works towards debunking myths that surround women’s lack of ambition towards the STEM field. When asked to give advice to aspiring female scientists, she outlined the importance of creating a good home setup and pursuing a purposeful career that lay within her passions.
Anuradha joined IRSO and has since risen to the topmost female position in India’s space agency. She has played a pivotal role in many ISRO missions and programmes, including taking on project manager, associate director and deputy project director roles.
I think it’s important to recognise the humble beginnings of all three of these women. Let me make this clear: I do not mean to use the recognition of humble beginnings as a way to patronise those who grew up anywhere other than the UK or USA, ogling at those who can succeed without having attended one of the top ten universities in the world. Instead, I’m acknowledging their background to first of all draw attention to the importance of representation, but also for us to recognise that greatness – whatever that means – can come from anywhere, not in terms of personal wealth but in terms of western recognition. In a way, it gives us hope to understand how vast humanity really is, and how greatness can really be found in every pocket of the world. Basically, just because the West has not figured something out, does not mean all the world’s resources have been exhausted.
I also think the reason for us to keep building awareness of those who are not globally recognised is to feed inspiration into the system. Representation is key: kids from disadvantaged areas can be inspired by people like Buzz Aldrin, but they can still lack the firestarter they need to pursue the dreams provoked by that inspiration. They need to not only see people who have achieved great things, but people like them who have achieved great things and I think the most prominent factors that have to be satisfied are location, gender and sexuality. There’s a difference between a young girl in Bengaluru looking up to NASA Chief Scientist Robert Lightfoot, and looking up to Nandini Harinath. The former shows her that someone can be a chief scientist at a space programme. The latter shows her that she can be a chief scientist at a space programme. We have to keep talking about these stories, to inspire the kids who rarely see success come from outside white America.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Hidden Figures, from Janelle Monae’s performance as Mary Jackson: “Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.” Maybe it’s naïve and idealistic, but I truly believe that the finish line is being reclaimed as we speak; we just have to recognise and encourage the generation that will finally cross it. Talking about stories like this is a vital step towards that finish line.