To The Moon And Back

sheelika ravishankar

When I first read about the Mars Orbiter Mission launched by ISRO in 2013, it was fascinating to read about the amazing women involved in the mission’s success, whose efforts had largely gone unnoticed in the excitement surrounding the mission’s launch. And then, when I first heard the words “world’s first private mission to the moon”, it didn’t really add up. After all, I thought, wasn’t space exploration something only the government did?

A field such as space exploration is a high-stakes area of work, requiring infinite amounts of dedication, hard work, and patience. Practical scientific knowledge of what one is doing is incredibly important. Planning the world’s first private mission to the moon requires a coordinated team which works smoothly and passionately towards its goal. TeamIndus, the Indian team representing India’s attempt to put the first private mission on the moon, is one such well-oiled team.

I was incredibly interested in getting to know more about the mission and the people behind it, and even more so when I got in touch with Sheelika Ravishankar, the head of Marketing and Outreach for TeamIndus (and, in her own words, the only non-science person working at TeamIndus!). She spoke about her experience working with TeamIndus, as a woman in a largely male-dominated field and participating in such a high-stakes competition as the Lunar X prize.  Here are some excerpts from the interview:

Were you always fascinated by space and astronomy as a child? What was the one thing that made you decide to pursue it as a career? How did you hear about the Google Lunar X prize, and what inspired you to join TeamIndus to work towards building the world’s first private mission on the moon?

Growing up I was not really interested in space – not more than the usual. I worked in the field of behavioral science, leadership building for 2 decades before taking a complete leap of faith and joining TeamIndus. I was looking for something exciting, that’s when I met TeamIndus. What drew me to TeamIndus was ordinary people attempting something so extraordinary. Here were a group of young engineers planning to take India to the Moon! It was an incredibly audacious goal and if I could play any part in making it a reality, I would.

You have mentioned in several interviews that you are the only non-science person at TeamIndus. How challenging was it for you, especially as a woman coming from a non-science background, to adapt yourself to such an environment and acquaint yourself with the particulars of the mission?

Anything exciting and truly challenging is not easy to attain. I would sit in every technical review (I still do) and learn. I would take notes and study them with the help of some engineers. If I couldn’t understand the technology – I couldn’t impact the team positively. I stepped out of my comfort zone completely, started learning from scratch with an open mind. I believe learning happens in every interaction, you have to keep learning to grow.

Sure, I would feel like a deer caught in headlights often, but I took it up as a challenge. Today I can talk layman rocket science to anyone. This was about a competency – being a woman or not didn’t matter. It would be equally tough for a man from a non-technical background.

Building the world’s first private mission on the moon requires years of work and dedication. What motivates you to keep going and not give up?

Going to the Moon is a goal that’s larger than life – larger than all of us in the team put together. Sometimes when your destined goal is very far or much too large to be achieved easily, you break it down to smaller achievable milestones and go from one milestone to another. Breaking both the goal and the challenges to smaller achievable, surmountable ones is something that’s helped in keeping us going.

We managed to put together an incredible team which is bound by the aspiration of landing on the Moon and I believe until that aspiration is achieved, we will find a way to keep persevering against all odds. There have been difficult times, like any other start-up would see, but the determination to make this happen is what pushes us on and on. For me personally, the passion and determination I see on the work floor every day is extremely fulfilling and humbling at the same time. It’s incredible to watch a whole team, working round the clock, living one dream. To be a part of this team is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It re-establishes the belief that nothing is impossible if you have perseverance, passion & faith.

A few years ago, when ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission successfully put a satellite into orbit around Mars, it was heartening to see that the efforts of many of the female members of the ISRO team acknowledged. How has it been for you to see the number of women in science and space studies increase?

I believe that there still aren’t enough women in STEM – Space being at the other end of the spectrum. Our ratio at TeamIndus is slightly heartening if you look at the industry statistics but not by themselves. We need to change the conditioning of children in their formative years if we truly have to support bringing more women into STEM. At TeamIndus, we proudly support a culture which is built on meritocracy – with no biases of age, race, gender. We have women across various subsystems working alongside their male counterparts as equals. As a race, we have a long way to go in women playing an equal impact role in STEM.

What would you say to young girls and women who are interested in space but are apprehensive about pursuing it, given that it is a largely male-dominated area of study?

I truly believe our limitations lie within us. We believe we cannot achieve something, hence we don’t. I would tell every aspiring candidate – male or female to go with where their passion lies. Get driven by what you want to achieve, not what is socially acceptable to safe. It’s only when you step out of your comfort zone, can you achieve greater things. So, don’t hide behind “it’s a male-dominated world”, there are always women who are making their mark, be one of them.

By Rutvi Zamre

Rutvi Zamre is an English major who knows that she doesn’t know much.

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