Sirisha Bandla, an Indian American astronautical engineer originally from Guntur, Andhra Pradesh in southern India, participated in a 15-minute historic space flight Sunday, becoming the fourth astronaut of Indian descent
Sirisha Bandla, an Indian American astronautical engineer originally from Guntur, Andhra Pradesh in southern India, participated in a 15-minute historic space flight Sunday, becoming the fourth astronaut of Indian descent. The Virgin Galactic's spacecraft VSS Unity 22 reached the 100-km altitude that marks the entry into space after taking off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, a southwestern US state, and returned to the base after a flight of about 90 minutes.
Astronaut 004 Bandla, accompanied by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, the British billionaire, and two other crewmates and two pilots touched the space mark on board VSS Unity 22.
Before the flight, Branson signed himself dramatically as Astronaut 001 and gave the Astronaut 004 rank to Bandla, 34.
During the space flight, Bandla was scheduled to conduct experiments designed by the US government's pioneer space agency, NASA involving plants in microgravity.
Bandla, the Virgin Galactic vice president for government relations, is an astronautical engineer by training.
Before her flight she said on an interview on a Virgin Galactic broadcast that her adventure was an “incredible opportunity to get people from different backgrounds, different geographies and different communities into space.”
The spacecraft was carried by a twin-bodied carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, for the first 15.5 km on its way to space before being launched for the final leg. The launch was delayed by about 90 minutes because stormy weather overnight delayed the flight preparations.
Bandla is the third Indian American in space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Pandya Williams and the fourth person of Indian descent – the first being Indian Air Force officer Rakesh Sharma, who flew on a Soviet spacecraft.
But unlike them, Bandla did not go into orbit and her flight was a short one to demonstrate the capability of Branson's space programme, a breakthrough in the commercialisation of space travel by private entrepreneurs.
Another Indian American, Raj Chari, is in the US astronaut programme and is scheduled to command a flight later this year.
Chawla, who was born in Karnal first flew into space in 1997 on Space Shuttle Columbia but died on her second flight in 2001 when the spacecraft burned on re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.
Williams, a US Navy pilot, was a commander of Expedition 33 to the Space Station.
In India, Bandla's grandfather, an elated Dr Bandla Nagaiah, told journalists that his granddaughter "was very decisive and has very good leadership qualities.
"From a young age she had this ambition to explore the sky, the moon and the stars," he said. (SAM)