In November 2016, a team of 23 scientists ventured from the arid climate of India to the below-zero temperatures of Antarctica. The mission? To operate and maintain the Indian research station, Bharati, while also collecting satellite data for ISRO. Mangala Mani was among this 23-member team.
As a young girl in Hyderabad, Mangala had a fascination for geography and displayed an affinity for analytical reasoning. Her greatest dream was to be a part of some kind of service for a human cause.
What finally cemented her desire to join a space organisation, was when she chanced upon an article by NASA which spoke of a Mars expedition.
Her parents, who had observed her potential, enrolled her in a Model Diploma for Technicians–Radio Apparatus (MDT-RA) where she was the only female student in a class of 80 males. The intensive syllabus meant that graduates from the four-year course were highly sought after by places like ECIL, HAL, and of course, ISRO.
In a conversation with The Hindu, Mangala recalls her admission to ISRO saying, “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!”
However, being a woman, her family was reluctant to send her into such a male-dominated field. It was after an uncle (who was in the police force) persuaded her parents, that she finally set foot into ISRO, India’s premier institute for space research.
Years later, she was selected for an indefinite expedition to Antarctica—the only woman in a team of 23.
The journey was far from easy. According to a report by The Hindu, she was physically and mentally tested for weeks, before embarking on the expedition.
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She went through medical check-ups, including psychological assessment for a week at AIIMS, Delhi. Her physical endurance, strength and stamina were tested through treks in the mountains of Auli and Badrinath (stationed at an altitude of 10,000 ft).
She says to the TOI, “It was not only meant to test our physical endurance, but also to build our team spirit.”
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It was in November of 2016 that Mangala began what would be a 406-day expedition in below freezing temperatures. Having never seen even light snow before, she was amazed by the vastness of the ice, and the way in which the station was run.
Resources were used judiciously, and waste was segregated and shipped to the mainland so as not to contaminate the surroundings. The team themselves maintained the station and gathered for daily briefings on the work they would undertake for the day.
It wasn’t always just work, though. In the midst of groundbreaking research, Mangala found time to bake, stitch, and even celebrate special festivals!
“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 in the Chinese or Russian stations wintering in 2016-17,” she recalls.
Today, Mangala Mani is a part of the National Remote Sensing Centre in Shadnagar, Hyderabad. She continues to develop ideas and monitors and manages the resources to help disaster support systems, through data collected from satellites.
Her determination, hard work, and bravery to step into a zone where not many Indian women have ventured into before, is an inspiration to any who want to shatter the glass ceiling!
She says, “Men may have physical strength, but women are emotionally strong. All women should have faith in themselves and should always try to put their best foot forward.”