Last December, a small team of exhausted, but elated, ISRO scientists landed at Rajiv Gandhi International airport, sans fanfare and media hype. The team had successfully completed a 403-day expedition at India’s research station, Bharathi in Antarctica and the lone woman in the group Managala Mani had every reason to cheer. The first Polar Woman from ISRO, who’s ‘overwintered’ was selected to be featured by BBC’s ‘100 women Challenge’ for their series on Women in Science. Her role at Bharathi was to operate and maintain the ground station where 10 of 14 orbits would be visible, unlike in India where only 2 or 3 orbits would be visible. The satellite data thus collected would be transferred to India for processing and distribution to users.
Mangala Mani had never been to a place with snow prior to her expedition to Antarctica, and there she was bracing herself to spend an indefinite period on the vast icescape, also the most isolated place on the planet, with 22 men who were strangers to her until that expedition. Mangala Mani shares her experience of the expedition and what it takes for a woman to hold on to a career of her choice:
What motivated you to choose this field as a career?
In our childhood, newspapers and radio were the only media connecting us to the world. The major part of nurturing and moulding happened at home and in school. I’m the eldest of the six children and our parents encouraged us to study well and also to participate in extra- curricular activities. Our school (Holy Mary Girls High School, Saifabad) nurtured us to have a well-balanced growth, teaching us the morals of life and service apart from the regular syllabi. These noble principles from my parents and school, lay the foundation to study well, be a good citizen and serve the society. Thus, my small brain started thinking, how I can serve my nation and be a help to my fellow people. Right from my childhood I had a strong analytical and reasoning skills and a fascination for geography. So my natural choice was to go for engineering / technical profession. A newspaper article on Mars by NASA, USA fascinated me a lot and aroused an interest and a dream in me to join a space organisation like in Florida, which was on the coast! Seeing my interest, my parents got me admitted into Model Diploma for Technicians – Radio Apparatus (MDT-RA) of Government Polytechnic in Masab Tank, Hyderabad, whose entrance test, I cleared. This was a four-year diploma course, started with Russian collaboration, with the latest syllabus and one semester of in-plant training, either in HAL or ECIL, for our project work. I was the only girl in a batch of 80 boys. We came to know that most of our seniors are sought after by different organisations like ECIL, HAL, ISRO, etc even before the completion of the project work. This rekindled my hopes and dream of joining ISRO.
How did it feel to step out of college into the world of your dreams?
It wasn’t smooth initially. Soon after my Diploma, I joined HAL, Balanagar for apprenticeship. There I was called to attend the interview in SHAR / ISRO. Accompanied by my father, I attended and was shortlisted. To my surprise, within three weeks, I got an appointment order to join ISRO; my joy knew no bounds. But this joy was short-lived, when my parents expressed reluctance to send me, a young girl, to a distant place for a career. Finally, my uncle, who was a DSP, for whom dad has high regards, advised him not to hesitate to send me to ISRO which is a respectable and clean organisation (from a police department’s perspective). My parents agreed only after that.
It’s been a long journey since then, to your current stint with NRSC.
Having had a long stint, now I am in National Remote Sensing Center, Shadnagar in Hyderabad, where the Earth Resources data is collected from the satellites, processed and distributed to the users, while monitoring and managing the resources to help disaster support systems. Thus my dream of being a part of service to human cause and development of nation is being fulfilled.
What are the prerequisites to be in the field of space research?
Well, having a strong conceptual knowledge of maths, physics, chemistry and biology lays a foundation for basic engineering and medical professions, In today’s scenario, every profession has become inter-disciplinary and is more of a domain based research – space, weather, ocean, earth, computers, networks, astronomy, archaeology, geology etc. Space research is no exception, and all the elements of basic sciences are needed for Space technology.
Do you see more women entering the field now?
Women are venturing into every field. Women just need to be willing, ready and take that opportunity when it comes. With the knowledge explosion, sky is not the limit, there is much more beyond.
What was your first reaction after being selected for this expedition?
I was very excited and looked forward to the time of preparation. I dared to take this bold step to venture into the windiest, coldest, driest and, may I add, the most isolated place on this planet earth, and was looking forward to an adventurous and challenging time. Let me also tell you, I have never been to a place of ice/snow before and looked forward for a new experience.
What was the preparation like before leaving for the expedition?
National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean research (NCAOR), under Ministry of Earth Sciences is the nodal point for Antarctic expeditions taken up by our country. Elaborate medical check-ups were done at AIIMS, Delhi for a week, including psychologicalassessment for long term (wintering) members. In the next two weeks we were taken to Auli for snow / ice acclimatisation at 9000 feet altitude and to Badrinath at 10000 feet altitude. Here we were taken for long treks with increasing distances and with loads to build physical endurance. We are also taught about the safety and rescue tips in cold and snow / ice conditions; mountaineering and snow / ice equipment. This way, confidence and team spirit is imbibed in us before we embark on the journey.
You first impression of the Antarctica?
The sheer vastness of the ice all around was breathtaking. I was mesmerised at how an aeroplane could glide and land on icy runway, having started on a cement runway from Cape Town, South Africa. Any number of adjectives are inadequate to describe the stunning beauty of the icescapes (ice shelfs) and icebergs on and around the ice continent Antarctica.
How long did it take to settle down?
It took us about 15 days to understand and get familiar with the weather conditions, terrain and surroundings of the station. We were briefed about the careful usage of resources and general cleanliness of the station and surroundings.
All the segregated waste – food, human, biological, tin, glass, plastic, cardboard, paper – are compacted and back loaded to the mainland, to be disposed (by every station in Antarctica) to preserve the serenity of the continent.
What was the daily routine?
All the expedition members are expected to gather for a daily meeting, at an appointed time to discuss and plan the works to be handled, people to be involved for the station requirements, apart from the specific official duties which we are responsible for. We are also entrusted with the station inventory and maintainence. Station upkeep is the responsibility of every expedition member, and we keep vigil throughout the night. Galley Duty includes helping in the kitchen apart from Station Vigil, which is done in turns.
Has it all been work?
We pursued or learnt things like writing, performing etc. I have learnt to make eggless cakes in a microwave oven. I took time to stitch the image of Antarctica on a pillow cover for my mom on International Women’s Day in 2017. Special occasions and festivals were celebrated. We also had sports competitions between members of Indian, Chinese and Russian stations; I was the only woman among the 23 members wintering over at Bharati station, while there are no women at all either in Chinese or Russian stations wintering in 2016-17.
Did you ever experience homesickness?
There was anxiety when we were not sure of the return to India! I was desperate to return by December 2017 to a family gathering. During an interaction with our Director, YVN Krishna Murthy and Dy. Director, when they enquired about our well being, I did not hesitate to request for my return. Another spell of anxiety was when our relievers could not come and we could not start, as expected, because of bad weather. The weather should be clear in all the 3 stations (Bharati – where we start, Syowa– where refuelling is done and Maitri – Where we land to proceed further to Cape Town) to take the long haul flight of 8 hours covering 2800 kms, by a feeder flight, which can carry a load of 1500kg!
What kind of food did you have there?
We had the same food we have in our main land. Rice, dal, cereals, rotis,, frozen fish, mutton, chicken, prawns and vegetables. Initially, the ship would arrive bringing all these provisions for the whole year, (along with the fuel to supply power and heat for the station), Some fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs and milk also arrive. While fruits and vegetables are consumed within 2-3 months, milk and eggs will last for 5-6 months. Thereafter powder and condensed milk along with tinned fruits are used. We also have pickles, bread butter jam oats, corn, etc. all these have to be properly preserved and judiciously used!
Personally and professionally what’s been your contribution ?
Professionally, I have efficiently handled the responsibility entrusted to me, taken a lead role in initiating discussions for resolving issues. Personally, I have been very cooperative and accommodative with all the members of the team, and the same was reciprocated by the male members in the team. While some adjustments had to be made by me and the others (for example in using the common facilities like wash rooms, laundry services etc), a mutual respect was developed among the members creating a balanced and healthy environment.