For the foreseeable future, Sirisha Bandla is likely to have the same introduction that sets her apart in any room she inhabits: the girl who went to space. In July 2021, the aeronautical engineer was among the five passengers on the Unity 22 spaceflight, a historic feat—not only because Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is the world’s first fully crewed suborbital test flight, but also because Bandla, a girl from Andhra Pradesh, is only the second Indian-born woman to reach this far.
Bandla has a high-watt smile, beautiful curls and the earnest demeanour of the girl next door (who probably topped your class). But she insists she was never the straight-A prodigy you’d expect her to be. “I was one of those kids who could never stay focused on something,” says the 34-year-old astronaut, dressed in a grey Tshirt as she joins me on Zoom from her home in Washington DC.
A Maria Qamar artwork with Hatecopy’s sardonic humour looms over Bandla in the background—a subtle reminder of her desi upbringing—as she regales me with stories of her school days that came with diversions like cello lessons, horse riding, surfing and soccer. The only constant was a dream to reach the sky, fuelled by devouring paperbacks of Issac Asimov and binge-watching Star Trek during her formative years.
The daughter of immigrant parents, Bandla’s microbiologist father moved to the US from Guntur in Andhra in 1991 for a PhD. Living on campus in Houston, the family would bond over air shows and visits to the nearby NASA Johnson Space Center. “We didn’t have much money but I’d never know it because of the life my parents provided for me,” notes the Chirala-born engineer. “They were always so encouraging. When I was obsessed with marine life, they took me to the aquarium. When I picked up the biggest and most expensive music instrument, they tried never to say no.”
That the family raised not one but two women in STEM (Bandla’s sister is a microbiologist working for the US Department of Agriculture in Maryland) is also an accomplishment that she credits solely to their unbiased upbringing.
Take male-dominated fields like aeronautics. So far, the industry has spurred less than 100 women to reach space, of which the stats for women of colour are even more dismal. When Bandla says it’s “always felt like a very lonely path,” she’s not only referring to her engineering course at Purdue (where she was among a handful of girls of colour) but also to her childhood dream to be an astronaut, with no similar-looking role models but only “adrenaline-seeking white men”.
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