Anima Patil-Sabale is on a mission to be an astronaut. She is based in the Intelligent Systems Division at NASA Ames Research Center and has worked on NASA’s Kepler Mission for more than 3 years, with 14 years of experience in the software industry prior.
Anima was selected as Commander for the HERA VII mission, a 14 day Human Exploration and Research Analog at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She is a First Tier Support Engineer for Hi-SEAS and scientist-astronaut candidate for Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere). She kindly shared her story with Rocket Women.
On how she was inspired to study space:
It all began when I was 7 years old and we had a book fair at our school, St. Josephs Convent in the small city of Jalgaon in Maharashtra, India. At this book fair I came across books that had pictures of the US and Russian spacecrafts, astronauts lying on their backs when launching and Apollo astronauts. On that day I said to myself if I ever want to become something in life it is this – I want to become an astronaut. Now I decided that and saw one of the most difficult dreams of all, but had no way to figure out how I was going to go about making my dream come true. To top that there criticism and taunts I had to face when I would tell people I want to become an astronaut.
On her inspiration and overcoming setbacks:
My only inspiration was Astronaut Rakesh Sharma, India’s one and only astronaut so far [at the time]. Growing up I thought to myself, like him I will become a fighter pilot and then I will have a chance to become an astronaut. I was a good student always amongst the top. I participated in extracurricular activities, was a member of our school’s singing group, participated in dances, debates and speeches. I did great at school and then although India wasn’t accepting women as fighter pilots yet, I was hopeful that by the time I graduated things would’ve changed. The fighter pilot application said they were looking for graduates in engineering or physics. Since my Dad said whatever you want to study it has to be here, so going out of town to study engineering wasn’t an option and hence I decided to do BS Physics. I used to love physics anyways, and astronomy really interested me. I did my bachelors project on the same and I graduated with a distinction. I got the fighter pilot application and even though it said ‘only males’ can apply , I decided to apply anyways, but was defeated in one criteria – I was slightly short sighted and they needed a perfect 20 20 vision. All my world collapsed around me that day, it felt like everything was over now!
I got the fighter pilot application and even though it said ‘only males’ can apply, I decided to apply anyways.
On fighting for an education:
I didn’t know what I was going to do and the summer passed. It was time to make a decision about what I wanted to do next. I didn’t want to do a masters in Physics. My Dad suggested the MCA (MS Computer Applications), a 3-year-old program that had started at our North Maharashtra University in Jalgaon. With only 30 seats it was tough to get into but I got in. Dad wasn’t sure if I should do it as it was a 3-year program and he said there were marriage proposals coming for me, and he could not guarantee that I will be able to complete my degree if they liked a boy who was suitable for me and decide to get me married. My Mom said to him, “She’s smart and ambitious, let her study, we can negotiate with her would be in-laws and husband to let her complete her studies”. That’s how I finally got to do the MCA, a big thanks to my Mom!
On meeting her husband and following Indian cultural expectations:
Dinesh, my husband was a year senior to me when I was studying for my Masters. He really liked me and proposed to me. I asked him to meet my parents if he really liked me. I thought that would deter him, but he surprised me and did come to meet my parents! We got married while I was finishing my first year of MCA. I continued to stay at my parents while I completed MCA, Dinesh stayed at his parents, and we completed our studies. When it was time for me to look for 6 month industrial training and Dinesh was looking for job, we came to Mumbai and after a lot of efforts finally were picked by a small company together.
On moving to the US from India:
After 2.5 years in Mumbai we got the opportunity to come to the US on the H1B visa through the same company. In March 2000, we came to San Jose, California where we started settling in new jobs and making our new home here. In a couple of years I found out there was a NASA centre here, I was seeing the space shuttles launch and I remember watching Columbia launch.
On finding her true goal and the importance of persistence:
Seeing the shuttles launch regularly, knowing about NASA Ames being close, my dream, that had become dormant, started beckoning me again. I saw hope of doing something here so with a full-time job as software engineer and with a 3 year old, I applied and got accepted for my second Masters – MS Aerospace Engineering degree at San Jose State University. While studying I kept applying at NASA, Lockheed, Space Systems – all local Bay Area aerospace companies for jobs. But I wasn’t a citizen and so I wouldn’t get any calls. I kept at it though. By the time I completed my second Masters, I had my second son! I did complete my MS with a decent GPS 3.24 /4 – not bad for a full-time mom and working woman! I completed the degree in 2010 but still had no success in getting even a call from NASA.
On that phone call from NASA:
In 2012 when I was couple months away from becoming a citizen, I got a call from the hiring manager for a position on Kepler Mission. His first question was are you a US citizen and when he found out I was about to become one he called me in for an interview. One interview with about 10-12 scientists, managers and engineers and I landed the job. They liked my Aerospace and Software engineering background. I enjoyed working on Kepler as a Senior Principal Software Engineer in Operations Engineer role. While working on Kepler, I started doing talks about Kepler and NASA. I became a NASA mentor for girls. I was a Cub Scout Den Leader for my boys. I also started coaching my elder son’s Lego Robotics league and I started my private pilot lessons
I was doing these talks so I could guide the younger generation, provide them the direction I couldn’t get growing up.
On sharing her story to guide the younger generation:
When I went to India in summer 2014, on a friend’s insistence and my alma matter North Maharashtra University’s invitation, I did a few talks. The people in my hometown developed an interest in my story and I got more invitations for talks and interviews. It was all humbling and exciting because I was doing these talks so I could guide the younger generation, provide them with the direction that I couldn’t get growing up. Age is one factor against me, I am not getting any younger, I will do what I can to work towards my dream and I will apply to the astronaut program but whether I succeed or not in achieving my goal, I will adhere to my motto of “Guide, Motivate and Inspire” the youth and kids, our future generation. Advise them on career options, paths get them interested in STEM and be an advocate for human space exploration. I have continued to do that. I did several talks during that 2014 trip and during a recent visit in January 2016 in India. I have been doing the same here in the Bay Area in the US.
The interest in my story has grown, after interviewing with the media, a lot of people have been wanting to connect with me. I have created a Facebook page to share my story and to answer questions. I am also putting a website together.
On participating in simulated Mars missions:
Two years ago I got selected for a four month simulated mars mission in Hawaii, HiSeas. Since I couldn’t get a vacation from work for four months I had to let go of that opportunity, but I have been doing mission support for HiSeas since. Last summer I got selected to participate in the HERA (Human Exploration and Research Analog) mission at Johnson Space Center. We were a crew of 4. I was designated Commander and we were in a simulation for 14 days , our mission was rendezvous with an asteroid GeoGraphos. It was a great learning experience and I totally loved it. The tough part was being away from the boys as this was my first time ever being away from them for so long, but they did fine thanks to my husband!
On Being a Scientist-Astronaut Candidate for Project PoSSUM and Project PHEnOM:
Recently, I got selected as a Scientist-Astronaut Candidate for Project PoSSUM – Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere; a project supported by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. During the 5 day training for this project at the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University campus in Daytona, Florida, I trained in aerobatic aircrafts and experienced High-G and Zero-G flights and performed Anti-G maneuvers to avoid motion sickness, nausea and such symptoms that are experienced by pilots and astronauts during such flights. I also trained for high-altitude decompression recognition and recovery in a hyperbaric chamber up-to an altitude of 22000 ft.
After studying about noctilucent clouds and Earth’s upper mesosphere, I got to perform a flight on XCOR Lynx’s Spacecraft Simulator in a pressurized Final Frontier Design Spacesuit, as a scientist-astronaut candidate, and use the PoSSUMCam to collect science data on the clouds.
I have now been selected to participate as Citizen-Scientist Astronaut in Project PHEnOM – Physiological, Health, and Environmental Observations in Microgravity; it is one of the world’s first commercial human spaceflight research programs, training and utilizing citizen scientist-astronauts and mission support specialists to carry out its mission objectives. I look forward to this training.
This training and experience gives me the skills and confidence to forge ahead towards my childhood dream and putting together a strong Astronaut Application. I have applied to NASA’s Astronaut Selection program and while I wait for the yearlong process to unfold and find out where I stand in the same, I plan on continuing my adventures.
Being a Mom and a wife who’s 40 years now, it has been a tough ride. I faced a lot of opposition from my parents and husband when I decided to do the MS degree and for everything I do that’s out of the norm for a married woman and Mom.
On re-writing Indian tradition and waking up at 4am to reach her goal:
Being a Mom and a wife who’s 40 years now, it has been a tough ride. I faced a lot of opposition from my parents and husband when I decided to do the second Masters degree and for everything I do that’s out of the norm for a married woman and Mom. I have struggled, argued and stood my ground. I have never failed in any of my motherly duties or duties as a wife, daughter and daughter in law, they have seen this and have come to support me now. I am happy and in a good place as family support matters a lot when you are pursuing a tough dream as this!
I was able to convince parents to let their kids pursue the careers that the kids want and not what the parents want – that is one of the biggest challenges in India and a lot of students were telling me the same right in front of their parents!
I go above and beyond to make them my priority and put my dreams and goals as the last priority. I wake up at 4am everyday, cook lunch, pack lunches for everyone, lay out breakfast and clothes for the boys and then come to work by 6am. I leave work at 2pm and get home by 3pm when my boys come home from school then I can help them with their homework, do the dishes and start cooking. I am my younger son’s cub scout leader, and my older son’s Assistant Scout Master, Lego Robotics coach and an active participant in their activities. When I get time I carry out my flying lessons to become a pilot and I recently became a PADI Certified Open Water Scuba Diver.
I think it’s important to share my story because somewhere someone who has a dream and cannot figure out how they should pursue it, will find inspiration and guidance in my story.
During my talks recently in India, I was able to convince parents to let their kids pursue the careers that the kids want and not what the parents want – that is one of the biggest challenges in India and a lot of students were telling me the same right in front of their parents. It felt like ‘mission accomplished’ when I was able to convince the parents they should allow their child to pursue the field they love because then they will enjoy it all their life. Their work will be something they will look forward to everyday !
I think its important to share my story because somewhere someone who has a dream and cannot figure out how they should pursue it, will find inspiration and guidance in my story.
On her goals for the future:
I would love to contribute to more simulations as it’s a neat way to contribute towards the much needed research for long duration spaceflight. But I also have to stay in my family responsibility and work responsibility boundaries, so I’m doing whatever I can. I have applied to the NASA astronaut program. Whether I succeed or not, I think it’s important to share my story because somewhere someone who has a dream and cannot figure out how they should pursue it, will find inspiration and guidance in my story. I will also have the satisfaction that even though somewhat late in life, I made an attempt towards my dream while enjoying my journey every step along the way.
Anima is passionate about human space exploration, long-duration spaceflight. Anima is also a recent graduate of the Project PoSSUM suborbital scientist-astronaut training program. Anima pursues her motto to Inspire, Guide and Motivate the younger generation and provide them the direction she missed out on while growing up; through her Facebook page. You can follow Anima on her journey towards the stars here. She is also a proud Mom of 2 handsome boys, and wife to a doting husband.