To Space and back, Sirisha Bandla touches a new height

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With an hour-long voyage on billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic vessel, the researcher becomes the third Indian American woman to fly

Our Bureau
New York, NY

Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations at Branson’s Virgin Galactic, became the third woman of Indian origin — after NASA astronauts Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams — to fly to space.

“From a very young age she had this ambition to explore the sky, the moon, and the stars. Sirisha had set her eyes on space, and I am not at all surprised that she is all set to realize her dream,” Sirisha’s grandfather Dr Bandla Nagaiah told The Indian Express before the flight commenced on Sunday.

“After hearing the news that she was part of the team to go into space, I called her. She was driving but still answered the call. When I congratulated her, she said yes, finally it is happening, and said ‘thank you, thata (grandfather)’,’’ Dr Nagaiah said.

Branson, Sirisha, and four others — pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, and lead operations engineer Colin Bennett — travelled to the edge of space before returning to earth aboard the Galactic Unity 22 spacecraft.

“She visited Guntur last November, and as usual she was full of energy and bubbling with ideas. She did not talk about going to space when she visited last time but she did mention that she was doing very significant work. She is very decisive and has very good leadership qualities,” Nagaiah, who retired as an agriculture scientist from Acharya N G Ranga Agricultural University, said.

Sirisha was born in Chirala in her maternal grandmother’s home. The family then moved to Tenali in Guntur. Till the age of 5, Sirisha spent time between Hyderabad where Nagaiah lived, and Tenali at her grandmother’s house.

With an hour-long voyage on billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic vessel, aeronautical engineer Sirisha Bandla has become the third Indian American woman to fly to the edge of space.

On return to earth, celebrating their successful space flight, Branson carried Bandla on his shoulders at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, on July 11. “The whole thing… it was just magical,” the 71-year-old business magnate said during a live feed from the spacecraft as it made its way back to the Earth.

The flight reached a peak altitude of around 53 miles — beyond the boundary of space — over the New Mexico desert, allowing the passengers to experience a minute of weightlessness and admire the Earth’s curvature.

Branson, who has become the first person to travel to the edge of space in his own spaceship, Branson described the journey as the “experience of a lifetime.” He beat Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, who is slated to undertake a journey to space just a few days later, on July 20.

“I am so incredibly honored to be a part of the amazing crew of #Unity22, and to be a part of a company whose mission is to make space available to all,” Bandla, 34, had tweeted in a video posted on the Twitter handle of Virgin Galactic on July 6.

“When I first heard that I was getting this opportunity, it was just… I was speechless. I think that that probably captured it very well,” she said. “This is an incredible opportunity to get people from different backgrounds, different geographies and different communities into space.”

On the flight, she used an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile.

The gleaming white space plane was borne with a twin-fuselage carrier jet VMS Eve, named after Branson’s mother. The primary objective for Unity 22 was to serve as a test flight for future commercial passenger flights by Virgin Galactic.

The Company’s fourth rocket-powered spaceflight was the 22nd test flight of VSS Unity and the first test flight with a full crew in the cabin, including the Company’s founder, Branson.

The crew fulfilled a number of test objectives related to the cabin and customer experience, including evaluating the commercial customer cabin, the views of Earth from space, the conditions for conducting research and the effectiveness of the five-day pre-flight training program at Spaceport America. Witnessed by audiences around the world, the flight gave a glimpse of the journey N’s Future Astronauts can expect when the Company launches commercial service following the completion of its test flight program, it said in a media release.

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