Photo: Jayachandran/Mint
Photo: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Breaking the glass ceiling at the final frontier

An Indian woman in the country's own space flight might just be the story small village girls, currently burdened by the drudgery of domestic chores, need to read or be told about

It may be symbolic, but it signals a good beginning. So, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (Isro) move to include women in the potential list of candidates for the country’s first manned space flight is a welcome one.

Isro chairman K. Sivan told The Indian Express that the first flight might not be an all-male one. The flight launch—Isro plans to do it by the end of 2021—will thus not only mark the coming of age of the Indian space programme, but also that of the Indian woman. Sure, we have the sporting success of the Saina Nehwals and M.C. Mary Koms to be proud of, not to forget the Naina Kidwais and Arundhati Bhattacharyas in the financial sector.

But having a presence in the country’s first manned space mission will add swagger and more to Indian womanhood. A country begging for heroes and messiahs needs such paragons, a testosterone-driven society even more so, especially considering the debasing political discourse from either side of the divide plunging to new lows every other day targeting women representatives.

The Indian space agency’s mission is daunting. Isro is building a spacecraft that can accommodate up to three astronauts and remain in space for as many as seven days. The Indian Air Force will provide the candidates who will undergo a long, gruelling training before being sent on their journey of honour. And the prospect of a woman being part of India’s first space flight is one to look forward to.

After all, a woman is as capable of achieving a mission’s target on its first flight as a man. And while we are at it, let’s not forget the many women scientists who are already part of the Indian space programme. Isro’s mission does not come a day too soon. China, which conducted its first manned space flight as far back as 2003, has energized the landscape, or let’s say spacescape, again.

The US and Russia have been happy trading charges on spying, data theft and influencing elections, while cutting back on their space programmes. With space vacated for it, China last week in a world-first landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon—a part of our satellite that never faces the Earth—and is thus difficult to reach. In a few years, it plans to launch its third space station and this one will be manned. Isro’s plans thus need all the push they require.

That’s not to say India’s space programme hasn’t had several successes in the last few years. In 2014, the country put a spacecraft in Mars orbit, beating its Asian rivals and stupefying the Americans and the Europeans with its shoestring budget, and also that it was done at the first attempt. Isro rockets have so far launched more than 100 satellites. Its second lunar exploration mission, Chandrayaan-2, is set for its launch in the next two to three months.

Does a woman on a space mission mark the final frontier? Certainly not. The women in this country have many barriers to cross—securing a ticket on a manned space flight is a very small but important one. In a country struggling to embrace the meaning of “Beti bachao, beti padhao", an Indian woman in the country’s own space flight might just be the story those small village girls, currently burdened with the drudgery of domestic chores, need to read or be told about.