Aeronautical engineer Sirisha Bandla on Sunday became the second Indian-born woman to go to space after Kalpana Chawla, PTI reported. Chawla died when the Columbia Space Shuttle crashed during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003.
Bandla, also the third Indian-American woman to fly into space, joined British billionaire Richard Branson on Virgin Galactic’s first fully-crewed successful suborbital test flight from New Mexico in the United States.
Apart from Bandla and Branson, four others travelled aboard the Galactic Unity 22 spacecraft – pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses and lead operations engineer Colin Bennett.
The spacecraft reached an altitude of about 88 kilometers over the New Mexico desert. The crew experienced a few minutes of weightlessness before making a gliding descent back to Earth.
Soon after the rocket’s return to Earth, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu tweeted that Bandla’s achievement “will motivate many more young girls in India and abroad to take up challenging careers”.
Days before the flight, the aeronautical engineer had tweeted, “I am so incredibly honoured to be a part of the amazing crew of #Unity22, and to be a part of a company whose mission is to make space available to all.”
Her grandfather Bandla Nagaiah told The Indian Express before the spaceflight that she had an ambition to explore the sky, the moon and the stars. “Sirisha had set her eyes on space, and I am not at all surprised that she is all set to realise her dream,” he said.
Bandla joined Virgin Galactic in 2015 as government affairs manager, India Today reported. She was also handling Washington operations for Virgin Orbit, which recently delivered a satellite in space using a Boeing-747 plane.
Bandla is a graduate of Purdue University in Indiana, United States. She also has a Masters degree in Business Administration from Georgetown University.
Unity 22 sought to serve as a test flight for future commercial passenger flights by Virgin Galactic. With the short spaceflight on Sunday, Branson became the first of the new space tourism pioneers to try out their own vehicles, beating Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk, the BBC reported.