Ritu Karidhal

An aerospace engineer who aimed for the stars and reached Mars and the Moon.

Ritu Karidhal, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Featuring artwork by Arghya Manna & words by Dr. Roopali Chaudhary, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

“I have always had a fascination for mysteries of outer space, and knew that’s what I wanted to get into” — Ritu Karidhal

Like many children around the world, this particular young girl also spent her evenings gazing at the night sky, looking at the stars wondering about the celestial bodies amongst them, dreaming what is beyond the dark space. Today, this young girl has grown up to work at her dream space agency, accomplishing many space missions and learning about the abyss she longed to explore! Ritu Karidhal, an aerospace engineer who works at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), has been an integral figure for India’s space exploration.

Humble beginnings

Ritu is the oldest of 4 children, born to a middle-class family in Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, India. Although the family lacked the resources for extra coaching/tuition classes, her parents placed great emphasis on education. Ritu was a highly motivated and diligent student, and her mother accompanied her on multiple late nights of studying so she wouldn’t feel alone and lose motivation. Not only did her mom stay up late for her daughter’s studies, she also lay with Ritu as she stargazed and contemplated the night sky.

As a teenager, one of Ritu’s hobbies was to collect newspaper clippings keeping track of space-related activities and news coming out of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and ISRO. Ritu was always drawn to the stars, and had a genuine passion for math and physics — so much that she says wrote poems about mathematics!

Ritu completed her BSc from Mahila Vidyalaya PG College and MSc in physics from the University of Lucknow. Ritu often credits her professors for teaching physics in such an engaging manner that she knew she had chosen the right path for herself. After the completion of her MSc, Ritu started her PhD in physics under Professor Manisha Gupta, who was also her MSc supervisor. Professor Gupta recalls Ritu as being a dedicated, simple and hardworking woman who was sincere about her work. Her intelligence was undeniable!

Within the first 6 months of her PhD, Ritu had published a paper, was a part-time lecturer for physics at the university, and wrote the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) exam administered by the Indian Institute of Technology (one of the most competitive national level exams in the country). When Ritu received her admission letter to join the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore for her Master of Technology (M.Tech) in Aerospace Engineering, she was torn between the choices she had before her. She wanted to continue with her PhD research in physics, but also knew that joining IISc was a step closer to her dreams of joining a space agency. Her mentors encouraged her to join IISc, and Ritu credits her parents for trusting and having confidence in their daughter to send her away to a different part of the country, a part unfamiliar to them with a travel of 2.5 days by their humble means. Her parents recognized the importance of this opportunity, and put it above the societal norms for their daughter’s success.

While completing her M.Tech, Ritu continued to scan newspapers for space-related news, and the classifieds section for potential job opportunities at the ISRO. One day she found a job at the space agency, and quickly applied to it. As she finished her M.Tech in 1997, she received a call from ISRO to join; her lifelong dream was beginning to come true!

From stargazing to space exploration

When Ritu started at ISRO in Bangalore, she started off posted at the U. R. Rao Satellite Centre (URSC). Despite other senior scientists being available, Ritu recalls receiving very difficult and challenging assignments due to her educational background. Not only did she complete these in a timely manner, it helped her gain more confidence in her work and become more passionate about the challenges ahead of her. Ritu loved the projects she was involved in!

India’s ‘space women’ (from left) Ritu Karidhal, Anuradha TK and Nandini Harinath. Source: BBC, 2016 article

The most challenging project that landed on her desk was India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (M.O.M), named Mangalyaan-1. In 2012, Ritu was appointed as the Deputy Operations Director on the mission: a mission that had a short completion time and was the first interplanetary one for India. Ritu played a key role in creating the craft’s autonomy system; calling it the “brain of the satellite”. Due to the distance of travel, the complexity of sending and receiving signals would amount to ~40 mins per signal. Thus, Ritu headed a team creating a software system designed to make decisions on its own. In collaboration with a team of scientists, and electrical and mechanical engineers, the autonomy system was created in a record 10 months!

The project was completed in a mere 18 months and is the most economical interplanetary project to date. Mangalyaan-1 was launched on 5th November 2013, and has been successfully orbiting Mars since 24th September 2014. This was the first time any country had reached the Mars orbit in their first attempt. The celebratory picture of a number of women scientists who worked on the mission was shared worldwide! Ritu, along with a number of other women on the team at ISRO, landed the title of “Rocket Women of India”.

Indian staff from the Indian Space Research Organisation celebrate after the Mars Orbiter Spacecraft entered Mars’s orbit. Source: Getty Images

While Mangalyaan-1 was a massive success for ISRO, India, and space science, another important accomplishment it highlighted was that scientists, regardless of gender, worked together to make it a success, breaking the gender stereotypes! “M.O.M” not only was a mission, but also the description of an integral part of the team. Ritu recalls the difficulties of balancing personal and professional life. With the M.O.M project, all of a sudden her schedule was busier than normal, so much so that after leaving work, helping her kids with homework, she continued to do work from midnight to 4 am!

“Mental endurance takes over physical strength. I went without sleep for two to three days because I did not want to miss anything. And it was only after the launch and excitement was over that the waves of exhaustion come crashing over me” — Ritu Karidhal

Mangalyaan-1 had all of India’s eyes on it. And after the successful launch and orbiting, Ritu became an overnight celebrity, invited to speak at multiple TEDx Talks and colleges, giving interviews to journalists for newspapers and TV across the country. A young girl who collected clippings of space-related news grew up to become one of India’s most sought after space scientist!

Aimed for the stars and reached the moon!

After the success of Mangalyaan-1, ISRO’s next high profile mission was Chandrayaan-2, India’s first lunar rover mission launched on 22nd July 2019. Chandrayaan-2 has been the most challenging mission for ISRO thus far, aiming to land a rover on the unexplored lunar south pole and gather information on rocks, minerals and water.

Ritu was appointed the Mission Director for it, with M.Vanitha as the Project Director. This was the first time that a space project was headed by two women! In fact, 30% of Chandrayaan’s team are women! This fact got Chandrayaan-2 worldwide media coverage, and launched Ritu on a global scale of interviews. Not being fazed, Ritu exudes confidence in every interview, talking about the importance of the reaching enormous heights with each new mission that ISRO undertakes.

Ritu’s work has achieved her a number of accolades, including the ISRO Young Scientist Award in 2007 received from the Late. Dr. Abdul Kalam; the ISRO Team Award for M.O.M in 2015; and “Women Achievers in Aerospace” Award by the Society of Indian Aerospace Technologies & Industries in 2017.

Ritu Karidhal and family. Husband, Avinash Srivastava and two children, Aditya and Anisha. Source: Stars Unfolded

While Ritu’s accomplishments are many, she truly believes that the right support from her parents, husband, siblings and children helped her with her achievements. She credits her partner for being equally involved in household chores and raising the kids, so that both of them could reach their respective career goals. Her kids are very proud of her, and she often says that it is their excitement that helps keep her motivated. She says that though she may have had very long days on the various ISRO missions, her kids have never felt neglected by their mother, a concept that many Indian families still have difficulty understanding.

Ritu is the embodiment of every middle class Indian girl with high hopes and dreams, and has shown that regardless of the obstacles, with the right amount of confidence, passion and support, young girls and women can achieve any level of success.

Timeline

1991 Enrolled at Mahila Vidyalaya PG College for BSc in Physics

1996 Graduated with a MSc in Physics from University of Lucknow

1997 Graduated with M.Tech from Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Aerospace Engineering

1997 Joins Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)

2007 Received ISRO Young Scientist Award by Late Dr. Abdul Kalam

2012 Appointed as Deputy Operations Director for Mangalyaan-1 (Mars Orbiter Mission aka M.O.M)

2015 Received ISRO Team Award for M.O.M

2017 Received “Women Achievers in Aerospace” Award from Society of Indian Aerospace Technologies & Industries

Sources:

This scientist is part of a postcard box set, available here: https://www.sci-illustrate.com/wispostcards
Featured in the iWIS Inspirations Wall Calendar 2020, available here: https://www.sci-illustrate.com/wis-calendars-2020/#wisINS

About the author:

DR. ROOPALI CHAUDHARY

Content Editor Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Dr. Chaudhary has an MSc in Genetics (University of Waterloo, Canada) studying Drosophila embryogenesis (fruit fly embryo development), and a PhD in Cellular & Molecular Biology (McMaster University, Canada) studying intestinal inflammation in a novel mouse model. She furthered her career in a 3-year post-doctoral fellowship studying the immune memory in food allergies (McMaster University, Canada). Dr. Chaudhary’s continually strives to make science accessible, be with through her edible science art (custom cakes), teaching or her outreach activities.

About the artist:

ARGHYA MANNA
Contributing Artist, Sci-Illustrate stories

Arghya Manna is a comics artist and illustrator. He began his biomedical career as a doctoral student at Bose Institute, India working on Tumor Cell migration in a 3D environment, but soon left wet lab research and his doctoral studies to find refuge in art. Finding himself becoming increasingly passionate about visual science communication through comics, he now is an History of Science enthusiast and showcases his work through his blog “Drawing History of Science”.

Arghya, through his artwork, aspires to engage the readers of history and science with the amalgamation of images and texts.

About this series:

These are stories I wish I knew when I was growing up.

There are the stories of persistence, ingenuity, calibre, scientific achievement against all odds.

These are the stories of Indian women who were the pioneers of Science in India.

These are stories of lives that must be remembered and cherished.

Sci-Illustrate stories is proud to add a new chapter in our WIS series where through the words of the sci-illustrate team, complimented by the artwork of a very talented Indian artist Arghya Manna, we will be revisiting and highlighting the lives of some incredible Indian women in science.

— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director

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