For Her, Sky No Longer the Limit: Meet Ritu Karidhal, Chandrayaan-2 Mission Director

When four-year-old Ritu Karidhal imagined the moon walking with her wherever she went in her hometown Lucknow, she must not have dreamt of a day when she would lead ISRO’s second mission to the moon — Chandrayaan 2. (Karidhal had worked on Chandrayaan 1, but not as part of the core team.)

“Chandrayaan-2’s unmanned landing will provide a technology which can eventually help explore habitation on another planet. It is the first step towards that,” Karidhal was quoted in the book ‘Those Magnificent Women and their flying machines, Isro’s mission to Mars’.

Just how important this accomplishment truly is, can be gauged by a quick look at a few of the available statistics about women scientists in India and the world.

• Women make up only 28.8 per cent of those employed in scientific research and development across the world.

• They are less likely to enter and more likely to leave careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

• They are poorly represented in science academies — there are only 12 per cent female members in 69 science academies across the world.

• Only 17 women have been awarded a Nobel Prize in the three science categories since the award’s inception in 1901.

There is also a major dearth of women in top leadership positions in scientific establishments, research institutions and higher decision-making committees. No woman for instance, has ever occupied the top rank at ISRO since its inception on August 15, 1969.

Women scientists have held leadership roles as project managers and project directors, carving out their space in the fiercely competitive and male-dominated world of space, overcoming implicit biases and chauvinism in their long journey to success.

The appointment of Karidhal as mission director of Chandrayaan-2 (with Vanitha M as project director) heralds a new era in the history of women scientists in the country and the world.

For every girl who continues to be told ‘science is not for girls’ or that a career in science would impact family and mommy-track goals, here is a woman icon who has done it all. And, reached the very top — balancing work and family with equal ease and efficiency.

The first time I met Karidhal at a women’s conference in Mumbai, I was awestruck by one statement she made in the course of a presentation on her role as deputy operations director for the Mars Mission.

“We worked on the mission during the day, we often worked nights as well and in between we looked after our children and families”. The matter-of-fact way she said this to an appreciative audience of working women reminded me of the iconic Tata Steel ad, ‘We also make steel’.

Later, at her Bengaluru home, her children shared details of how their mother would help them with their studies in the evening, resume her work on her laptop till late into the night and then wake them up at 6.30 am for their school. Her husband corroborated her hectic pace and juggling act with a little help from the family.

The three-shift schedule over two years paid off handsomely when the Mars Mission became an unqualified success, bringing laurels to the entire team, especially to the women in key roles.

“I still get goose bumps thinking of that day when our Orbiter entered the Martian orbit,” Ritu told me, her eyes shining. It was a small moment of triumph she allowed herself in a daily routine of focused work and concentration on the goal ahead.

“You should be more famous,” I told her after listening to the detailed description of her work on Mangalyaan. She laughed in reply, crediting teamwork (and time management) instead, for the public recognition that came her way.

After Chandrayaan-2, however, Karidhal will need no introduction, except as the iconic inspiration to countless young girls wanting to pursue science in this country. For all of them, just as it was for her, the sky will no longer be the limit.

(The author had interviewed Ritu Karidhal multiple times for her book ‘Those Magnificent Women and their flying machines, Isro’s mission to Mars’)