Journeying to the edge of space has been literally “a dream come true” for India-born Sirisha Bandla, who had always nurtured a dream to explore the frontiers of space since she was a child.
Further elaborating on how she felt being part of a historic, sub-orbital test flight aimed at transforming the face of space travel, an emotional Bandla said it was “incredible” and a “life-changing experience” .
Bandla, a 34-year-old Indian-American aeronautical engineer, was part of the five member team which had joined British billionaire Richard Branson on board the Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Unity22 on Sunday (July 11), to travel to the edge of space from the US state of New Mexico. Bandla was astronaut No 004 and her role on the flight was that of ‘Researcher Experience’, while the other crew members were two pilots and three other crewmates, including the 70-year-old billionaire Branson.
The space ship reached an altitude of about 88 kilometres over the New Mexico desert – enough to see and soak in the sight of the curvature of the Earth. The crew had reportedly experienced a few minutes of weightlessness before they returned to to Earth.
In an interview to NBC News about her space voyage, the Washington-based Bandla said that she was kind of “still up there”, NDTV reported. She hunted for a better word to describe her experience of her travel to the edge of space. “Incredible”, she said because that is the only word that popped into her mind after this trip.
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“Seeing the view of Earth is so life-changing but also the boost the rocket motor kicking in. The whole trip to space and back is just amazing”, said Bandla. A week before Bandla went on her flight, her grandfather Dr Ragaiah, a retired scientist had told Reuters, “From the beginning, she was very much fascinated towards the sky, looking at the sky, space, how to enter space and what is there,” he had said.
Bandla, who is currently the Vice-President of Government Affairs, at Virgin Galactic, (according to her LinkedIn profile), further revealed that she had wanted to be an astronaut. But she couldn’t go in for the traditional National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) role since a poor eyesight had spoilt her chances to meet the requirements to become a pilot or an astronaut for NASA.
Instead, Bandla, who has become the third Indian-origin woman to fly into space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams, adopted an “unconventional way” to visit space.
“I do believe that a lot of people are going to be able to experience this and that’s why we are here,” she said, referring to the fact that Virgin Galactic, the company that Branson had started in 2004, is focussed on commercialising space travel and to fly private citizens to the edge of space. The trips have been designed to permit passengers to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and to get to see and enjoy the earth’s curvature from space.
The Virgin Galactic carrier can launch up to eight people (two pilots and six passengers) on the Unity 22 flight, but on Sunday there were only six occupants (two pilots and four passengers).
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“I am so incredibly honored 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,” Bandla had said in a tweet, before she had embarked on her tryst with space.
From Guntur to the edge of space, @SirishaBandla’s feat will inspire young girls across the globe to break the glass ceiling and define new possibilities.
Congratulate the team of #Unity22 and India-origin astronaut Sirisha for the new milestone in commercial space travel. https://t.co/BfJthZbS5G
— Dharmendra Pradhan (@dpradhanbjp) July 12, 2021
Bandla, who was born in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh and brought up in Houston, moved to the USA when she was 4-years-old. Her interest in space studies drove her to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Purdue University in 2011.
After completing her Master of Business Administration degree from George Washington University in 2015, she had joined Virgin Galactic in 2015 as a business development manager, went on to become director of Washington operations and Vice-President of Government Affairs in the company.
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On Branson’s space flight, the four mission specialists had to evaluate different experiences that Virgin Galactic has promised its future customers, who have already reserved seats on the company’s commercial space flights. Each seat will ostensibly cost US $250,000, according to media reports.
Queried on this point whether this was just a joyride for rich people, NDTV report added that she said, “As Virgin Galactic builds up…this is VSS Unity’s ride to space today but we have got two more spaceships in the manufacture and we hope the cost would come down.” In another interview, she said, “This is a fantastic opportunity to get people from different backgrounds, different geographies and different communities into space.”
Meanwhile, Twitter has exploded with congratulatory messages to this girl from Guntur who made it to outer space. The Minister of Education, Dharmendra Pradhan tweeted that Bandla’s achievement will be an inspiration for young girls across the globe. And, he added that “From Guntur to the edge of space, Sirish Bandla’s feat will inspire young girls across the globe to break the glass ceiling and define new possibilities…Congratulate the team of Unity22 and India-origin Srisha for the new milestone in commercial space travel.