Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Anima Patil-Sabale, NASA

27 May, 2016
Anima suited up wearing a Final Frontier Design Spacesuit for a suborbital flight on the XCOR LYNX spacecraft simulator

Anima suited up wearing a Final Frontier Design Spacesuit for a suborbital flight on the XCOR LYNX spacecraft simulator

Anima Patil-Sabale is on a mission to be an astronaut. She is based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center where she manages the Orion Spacecraft Simulations Lab. Prior to this, she worked on NASA’s Kepler Mission and in NASA’s Intelligent Systems Division and has 14 years of experience in the software industry.

Anima was selected as Commander for the HERA VII mission, a 14 day Human Exploration and Research Analog at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 2015. She has also been a Commander for a Mars Analog Mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in 2018, leading a crew of 5 in a study on how astronauts will live, work and survive on Mars. She has been a First Tier Support Engineer for Hi-SEAS for 4 years, along with being a Scientist-Astronaut candidate for Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) and Project PHEnOM, both commercial suborbital spaceflight research programs.

Through these programs, Anima contributes as a research subject to crucial astronautics research studies – flying parabolas to test the performance of a commercial spacesuit in microgravity, laying in a head-down tilt position for NASA’s Simulated Microgravity Fluid Loading study, spinning in a centrifuge and pulling up to 6G’s to contribute to a FAA Commercial Spaceflight study! Anima 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 were the 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.

Anima suiting up for the microgravity flight to fly on the Falcon 20 aircraft with Project PoSSUM [Anima Patil-Sabale]

Anima suiting up for the microgravity flight to fly on the Falcon 20 aircraft with Project PoSSUM [Anima Patil-Sabale]

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.

Anima Patil-Sabale working at NASA's Johnson Spaceflight Center in the ISS cupola module mock-up simulation lab -astronauts train in this lab to prepare for ISS missions [Anima Patil-Sabale]

Anima Patil-Sabale working at NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center in the ISS cupola module mock-up simulation lab -astronauts train in this lab to prepare for ISS missions [Anima Patil-Sabale]

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 every visit to India since then. I have been doing the same here 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:

In 2014, 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. In June 2015, 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!

The latest analog that I have been part of is a Mars Analog at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. I was a Commander and led a crew of 5 in studying how astronauts will live and work confined in an isolated environment on a hostile planet like Mars, with delayed intermittent communication with home and limited resources.

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 was also selected as Citizen-Scientist Astronaut for 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’ve also completed training in Land and Open Water survival skills, underwater emergency spacecraft egress training, and leadership skills. These training opportunities have allowed me to participating in research missions. I flew over fifty parabolas in a spacesuit aboard a Falcon 20 aircraft to test the performance of the spacesuit in microgravity and to help make its design better and user-friendly. I have additionally flown high-altitude flights chasing noctilucent clouds in a Mooney aircraft at High Level, Alberta Canada.

I flew over fifty parabolas in a spacesuit aboard a Falcon 20 aircraft to test the performance of the spacesuit in microgravity and to help make its design better and user-friendly.

These training opportunities and experience gives me the skills and confidence to forge ahead towards my childhood dream and put together a strong Astronaut Application. While I plan to apply to NASA’s Astronaut Selection program in the next round, developing these skills helps me develop personally and become a stronger, better human.

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.

Anima at Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) where she was a Commander for a Mars Analog Mission - a 14 day mission research study to understand the challenges astronauts will face when they live and work on Mars in isolation. In this image she is taking part in one of several 4 hour analog spacewalks

Anima at Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) where she was a Commander for a Mars Analog Mission – a 14 day mission research study to understand the challenges astronauts will face when they live and work on Mars in isolation. In this image she is taking part in one of several 4 hour analog spacewalks

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 Master’s 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 every day, 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 was my younger son’s Cub Scout leader, and today I am Assistant Scout Master for their Boy Scouts troop. I have been their Lego Robotics coach and an active participant in their activities.

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 in India, I have been 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 tell me the same right in front of their parents. It feels like ‘mission accomplished’ when I am 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!

Several have followed in my footsteps and joined Project PoSSUM and PHEnOM to pursue their astronautics dreams and I have also directed some to HERA and MDRS to participate in space analogs. It’s been fulfilling to help students and professionals alike and to provide them a direction. It helps me see that the goal I set out with, to share my journey, has come to fruition when I see people able to follow the path and work towards their dreams because I could contribute in a teeny tiny way.

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.

On her goals for the future:

I’ve completed my open water scuba certification in 2016 and have been wanting to complete the advanced scuba certification next. My pilot training has been full of hurdles, and I have fallen behind. As soon as I save a decent amount, I want to complete the training. I am wrapping up my third Master’s degree MS in Space Studies (Human Factors) this summer, looking forward to it.

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. I also wish to go on an extreme environment mission to the Antarctica maybe. There is a lot on my to-do bucket list!

But I also have to stay within my family responsibility and work responsibility boundaries, so I’m doing whatever I can. I will apply 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 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.

[This interview has been updated on 23 April, 2019]

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5 Comments

  • Reply Pradnya Sutar 20 April, 2017 at 11:40 am

    Mam,your journey is really wonderful and inspirable.

  • Reply kshirsagar Ashok U. 10 June, 2018 at 9:59 am

    All of Indians are proud of Anima Patil

  • Reply Sushant Sadashiv Kalyankar 29 August, 2018 at 8:37 am

    Mam,your journey is really wonderful and inspirable.

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