Most people have group chats and use them to update family when there is big news, or just for the joy of talking to loved ones. But imagine opening up your phone, entering a family chat and typing: “A quick FYI, I am going to be going to space soon.”
This is how Sirisha Bandla, vice president of Virgin Galactic delivered the news to her family that she would be going to space.
Bandla was part of the crew that went to space with Sir Richard Branson on July 11 on the VSS Unity, making her one of first people to go to space in this new era of human spaceflight. It was a historic moment not only for the space industry, but also one that made headlines worldwide. Via Satellite talked to Bandla about the whole experience and how it has changed her.
For Bandla, the trip was the culmination of a lifelong dream that had been formulating for many years. She had joined Virgin Galactic because she wanted to go to space, but didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
When she was in high school, her plan was to get an engineering degree and become an astronaut. However, due to eyesight issues, Bandla realized she could not become an astronaut in the traditional sense. Despite the setback, she was determined to not to give up on her dream of going to space.
“I saw Richard announce he was going to start Virgin Galactic and open up space for everyone. In 2004, I made a decision that this is the company I am going to work for, and I want to go to space,” Bandla says. “I didn’t really think that was going to manifest in the way that it has. I wasn’t able to go down the traditional route. I hope this is opening a doorway for many others that don’t fit into that box.”
Leading Up to the Flight
Sometimes in life, opportunities come. In 2021, Bandla had the opportunity to realize her dream. She was asked only a few weeks before the flight whether she wanted to go. She admits she had been preparing all her life for this moment, and would have gone the next day if she had been asked.
“Our President Mike Moses called and asked if I would be interested in flying on one of the crew flights during the test program. I said ‘Yes,’” she recalled. “He said you can take some time to talk to your family and husband. I said ‘Yes’ straight away, even though I was going to talk to my family. I had no doubts that I wanted to do this.”
However, things were fast moving, and while she was able to talk to her husband and parents about the momentous news, Bandla comes from a big family, and others found out another way.
“I told my husband and my parents in person. For everyone else, I just dropped into our WhatsApp family group chat — ‘Hey, BTW, I am going to space.’ I am sure they were thinking that was not the way I would tell them I am going to space,” she says. “They were completely ecstatic that I was getting the opportunity. I am sure behind the scenes they had many different feelings, but my family was a big support network. They said they were so excited and proud. I had a big support network going into it.”
'I Didn’t Want to Become a Meme’
Life would change in many ways for Bandla both ahead and post flight. All of a sudden, she was in the eye of a media storm. Bandla said the level of interest in her, particularly in India where she was born, reached unexpected heights. Ironically, she was more nervous about some of this stuff, then the actual flight itself.
“Mostly, I didn’t want to do anything in the public eye that would make me become a meme. If anything, that was what I was more nervous about this,” she says.
Thankfully Bandla managed to avoid becoming a meme, but social media would play a key part in the whole experience. She says she doesn’t have a big internet persona and most of her social media presence before the space flight was pictures of her dog, Chance the Yapper. After the announcement, her following “just blew up.” Bandla says she has always been a bit shy about the internet, but she was “pleasantly surprised” by the reaction on social media, which was largely positive.
“The messages I got from social media or phone calls, text messages, and emails — some I don’t know how they got my number — but they were all very positive,” she says. “A lot of them were from young women in India stating that ‘This wasn’t something that I could see myself doing, but seeing you chase after your dream to go to space has given me the encouragement I need to go chase what I want to do.’ I got so many messages in that vein. The few trolls I had were completely drowned out by the amount of support, particularly from young women.”
The support would prove to be a huge source of inspiration for Bandla ahead of the flight. “It was great to know even before I went to space, that I had inspired so many women and for me, I had been inspired by many great mentors. The first one being Dr. Kalpana Chawla who was the first woman of Indian descent who went to space, and who looked like me doing something that I wanted to do and made it feel real. It makes me honored that I could provide that pathway, and reduce those mental barriers for other women.”
Bandla admits she was surprised by how much support she received from India. She is a trailblazer, and many people in India, both boys and girls, who perhaps thought something like was not possible, now can dream. She says while right now a lot of people don’t have this opportunity, she is hopeful one day this will change.
“In some circumstances for women, they are not seeing a lot of women in the field, and they don’t have a lot of role models to look up to or plan their career the way I did. A lot of women don’t have that support network, and I believe this is providing some of that,” Bandla says. “People reach out to me and have been asking for my advice. Sometimes they can be simple questions, like ‘Why did you decide to go into aerospace engineering?’ It is those small things that are really encouraging to me.”
Bandla seems surprised by her new-found status. However, the one moment when she truly felt like a celebrity was when her favourite biscuit company tweeted about her.
“My favourite Indian biscuit company, Parle-G, did tweet me, and that is a life achievement right there. That was the one thing that made me feel like a celebrity. When they tweeted me, I felt like I had made it,” she says.
The Flight Itself
Bandla had so much confidence in Virgin Galactic’s vehicle and process that she had no real pre-flight nerves in the traditional sense.
“I get asked so much if I was nervous and it sounds really weird, but I wasn’t,” she says. “I think it was because I was with the company for so long and I knew so many of the engineers, so much about the vehicle and the design, and the leadership and culture. I wasn’t nervous in the sense that people were asking. My feelings were of anticipation of finally being able to see that view, more so than nervousness that something was going to go wrong.”
She was focused on the tasks ahead with fellow crew mate Colin Bennett and their responsibilities for the flight. The day before, they went through timelines and mapped out potential deviations in a methodical way. She recalls a conversation with Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor, who trained everyone for the flight.
“She talked to us about taking in the journey. So, we had a lot of teammates that were helping us prep for the flight. They helped in terms of the operational tasks of what we were doing,” Bandla says. “The whole journey starts before the rocket motor lights. So, take everything in. Everyone was telling us even though we know you have a job to do, to take it all and enjoy the experience. I was really trying to remember that. I slept well. I got a good seven to eight hours of sleep. I wasn’t nervous. I have this superpower of being able to sleep on-demand whenever I’m tired. I crawled into bed the night before and I was out like a light. I was refreshed and I was ready to go.”
Bandla shares what she remembers from the incredible experience. “I don’t think that anyone can really know when you get to space and see that view and feel those feelings. You see pictures. Everyone will have a completely different reaction when they get there,” she says. “The rocket motor was one of my favorite parts of the entire flight. I am a nerd, so feeling the power of the rocket, the feel of it and being pushed into my seat by it was such an incredible experience, and seeing the sky go from blue, to purple ,to black was just incredible. When the rocket motor cuts off, it just went silent. I don’t think I expected that. I didn’t expect complete silence.”
It is now a few months since Bandla travelled 53 miles to space. Reflecting on the experience, her dog Chance the Yapper plays a crucial role. She says the trip is always at the back of her mind, and even walking her dog is now different.
“Previously, I would just take [Chance] for a walk and think about work and other stuff. I found that post spaceflight, I have used this time to reflect a lot more on what I have done,” she says. “I have also found appreciating the streets of D.C., the sky, the trees a lot more than I used to. I zone out and take in the environment. Before I would just listen to podcasts and now I find myself enjoying the walk, and listening to my environment. It is weird. It didn’t happen right after the spaceflight. I have gradually more and more enjoyed being outside and taking in the environment.”
While much of the reaction to the flight has been positive, the merits of going to space while Earth is in a climate crisis have been questioned since the Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights. Bandla is acutely aware of these issues.
“We need to protect our planet,” she says. “I think going into space made it even clearer. Everything you read about the view is absolutely true. The thin blue line is scary to see. I think seeing Earth against the matte black of space put into perspective how lucky we are. I think people who do go to space will have that change in perception and really see how valuable Earth is. You don’t know what you have until we lose it.”
Space research is another way that these flights can help Earth, and Bandla says this research is close to her heart.
“I would love to get more researchers and educators up to space with their work. The more people that go to space, the better I believe life will be on Earth,” she says. “Not all private spaceflight companies’ objectives are to settle on different destinations. A lot of the research I am seeing is to learn more about Earth, learn more about plants, the environment. The more access we have to space, the better life on Earth is going to get.”
Inspiring the Next Generation
Bandla is a role model in our industry. She is not a billionaire who has gone to space, but someone that inspires young people and young girls about how exciting the space industry is, to help break down barriers and get more people involved in the industry. She wants to use her platform to interact and encourage young girls that the sky is no longer the limit, and show the industry is open to many, many different types of people.
“I do want to break the mold of what an astronaut looks like,” Bandla says. “They have always been very technical science people. I still think that is going to be very important as we go into exploration of other destinations, but that being said, as much as I wanted to go into engineering, I played cello. I love doing a lot of creative things. We had Dr. Sian Proctor recently go up on Inspiration4 [SpaceX mission] and paint and do artwork in space. That in itself inspired so many people to rethink careers in STEM. You can be a creative and a technical person. It is not just a one size fits all approach.” VS