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IIT Bombay

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Rushanka Amrutkar-Pate, PhD Candidate, IIT Bombay

3 February, 2020

Interview by Payton Barnwell (The Spaceship Company)

Rocket women are not always those who launch rockets – they are women with the spirit of igniting the minds and the power to reach out to conquer their goals with persistent efforts.

Rushanka is a PhD research scholar from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay with expertise in Satellite Remote Sensing applications for planetary science and exploration. She completed her Master’s in Technology degree from The Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia Pacific (CSSTEAP), affiliated to the United Nations, and was fully funded by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Rushanka is now a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (United Kingdom).

Rocket launch during International Space University (ISU) SSP19 program

A trailblazer as the first girl from her family to pursue space research and the only Indian woman selected to represent India from the Asia Pacific zone for the Masters in Technology program (2012-2013) of CSSTEAP with a full scholarship. A proud Dr Kalpana Chawla Scholar, Rushanka was recently a participant in the Space Studies Program 2019 in Strasbourg, France at the International Space University (ISU). [Check our Rocket Women’s scholarship to send a woman to the ISU Space Studies Program!]

Challenges as a Young Professional Woman in Space

Diversity and inequality had been present since the start of Rushanka’s career in STEM. It seemed that she was often one of the few, if not the only, female in her class. This continued throughout her educational career.

Being a girl from a middle-class background, Rushanka says it was often difficult for her to find the determination to continue with her education when resources were often limited. She started by providing tuitions for kids while she was still a Higher Secondary School student. Her younger brothers equally supported her in clearing obstacles and achieving her goals by distributing newspapers.

“I am happy we faced financial crisis during the very early stage of our lives as in a way it strengthened me and my brothers to always work hard with dedication in whatever we choose to work for.”

Rushanka believes gender equality starts at your home. You learn to respect every individual and work if your values nurtured by your parents are very strong and to the core.

My mother is a superhero who taught us to be strong and independent since childhood. Seeing her we always feel strong enough to handle any challenges in professional as well as personal life.

“I never faced professional or personal problems which other girls might face for being a woman in STEM. All thanks to my parents. My mother is a superhero who taught us to be strong and independent since childhood. Seeing her we always feel strong enough to handle any challenges in professional as well as personal life”.

What inspired you to choose space?

Rushanka’s interest in space launched from an article she came across in the fourth grade. The article mentioned the possibility of Earth having two moons, which led young Rushanka to bring this question to her teacher. Did Earth have two moons? Maybe we only knew about one!

“My question was unanswered that time as a teacher was also not aware of it. Eventually, my curiosity was answered after a lot of reading that the moons are artificial satellites they are talking about and not our moon (natural satellite). This inspired me to continue reading about satellites which later got me into the satellite remote sensing field.”

Research contributions and achievements

Rushanka’s contribution towards satellite remote sensing information extraction and exploitation for space research has fetched her over 13 research publications with 3 books as a solo author on her research findings during her M. Tech and PhD research. Her research with various international co-authors has been presented at conferences like AGU, SPIE, ICMARS, ISRS, Women in Space and IAC. Her award-winning research related to ‘microwave remote sensing for biophysical parameter estimation’ in two consecutive best papers from ICMARS 2012 and ISRS 2013 conference was highly recognized and appreciated by Indian Space Research Organisation.

In addition to Rushanka’s impressive portfolio of academic and research accomplishments, she also keeps an enthusiasm to bring about a change in the scenario for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). She was a panellist at Women in Space 2019 conference held at Arizona, US in early February 2019. She addressed leading researchers and bright women working within the space sector via a work-life balance session. She was also awarded Sparrho Early Career Researcher prize on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2019 for her outstanding research contributions.

Rushanka at the Women in Space Conference 2019, Scottsdale, Arizona

The International Space University (ISU) has been a goal for space enthusiasts and space optimists since it’s foundation. Being in the ISU family is a huge honor.

How did you join the International Space University (ISU)?

“ISU has been a goal for space enthusiasts and space optimists since it’s foundation. Being in the ISU family is a huge honor. Generations at a place like this bridges the gap between cultural, interdisciplinary and gender diversity”.

Every year, SSP [ISU Space Studies Program] gathers together over a hundred participants from all disciplines and corners of the world, to create what will soon become a family for life.

Can you tell us a bit more about the International Space University and your experience there?

The Space Studies Program (SSP) is a graduate program covering all aspects of space activities. It ranges from engineering to law, from science to philosophy and from medicine to economics. Every year, SSP gathers together over a hundred participants from all disciplines and corners of the world, to create what will soon become a family for life.

“Spending my summer at the Space Studies Program organized by the International Space University has been one of the most intense experiences of my life. It kicked-off with a grand welcome ceremony in the European parliament – a great place to start an amazing space adventure. The SSP brought international exposure, international interdisciplinary teams, and knowledge in all fields of the space sector, cultural exchange, and networking for life.”

Rushanka at the ISU Space Studies Program 2019 (SSP19) Opening ceremony at European Parliament

63 days of the Summer with 127 amazing space enthusiasts from 37 nations lectured by more than 200 space experts from all around the world.

7 departments covering space applications, space engineering, space humanities, space sciences, human performance in space, space law and policy, business and management.

4 team projects (Swarms, Fast Transit to Mars, Industrial and Urban planning)

Endless space lectures. Workshops. Professional visits.

Sounds like a dream come true for any Rocket Woman!

“SSP [ISU Space Studies Program] challenges you in many ways. First, it challenges your idea of space, as one can hardly dream it to be as exciting as it actually is at SSP. To give you an example, our ordinary day was spent among guest lecturers at the top of their discipline: chief scientists from NASA, CEO from space companies, heads of space agencies and foundations. One week passed at SSP, and we got to meet Buzz Aldrin, the second man who stepped on the Moon. How could one even dream of such an inspiring encounter?

SSP also challenges you as a professional. We are all used to live and think within our working environment, and we are barely aware that what we do is going to integrate with a million other pieces before getting applied. At SSP, you embrace this perspective already from day 1. The seven-department structure of the ISU and the great variety of background from your fellow participants will make you understand of all the parts that compose a space mission. In the end, you will come back changed. Your perspective on your job will be broadened, in a way that you could not imagine.

In a way, you move from your own bubble to the SSP bubble, one that you get to share with people from more than 35 countries. It is not easy to get acquainted with such diversity, but the reward is worth the effort. The personal growth one can experience at SSP is equivalent to as if you would embark on a world trip for one year. It is tiring and beautiful at the same time.

Last but not least, SSP challenges you as a person. We all live in our bubbles, and yet at SSP, you get to leave that bubble and press “pause” on your life for two full months. It is not because you do not care anymore, but simply because of the overwhelming amount of activities to do every 24 hours. In a way, you move from your own bubble to the SSP bubble, one that you get to share with people from more than 35 countries. It is not easy to get acquainted with such diversity, but the reward is worth the effort. The personal growth one can experience at SSP is equivalent to as if you would embark on a world trip for one year. It is tiring and beautiful at the same time.

After SSP you cannot be the person you were before. I left the program a different version of myself – more open, more aware of the world around me. Most importantly, you are now part of a family that will never let you down – the space family, the ISU. That family is the single best achievement of SSP and I cannot be happier to have gone through such an amazing experience.”

Rushanka commanding a Soyuz in the training mock-up at the European Space Agency (ESA)’s European Astronaut Centre during a SSP Professional Visit

What were some of the big highlights of the Space Studies Program for you?

“Meeting Astronauts like Buzz Aldrin, Paolo Nespoli and Jean-Francois Clervoy in person, launching rockets made by ISU participants in a 2-day workshop with John Connolly, making robots in robotics workshop, checking-out rover mobility remotely were some amazing treats from the program. Team building is the main important thing in Multicultural, Multinational Environment. For that reason, we have assigned tasks to build a Rube Goldberg Machine, design and launch a model rocket, robotic competitions, cubesat building, a team project etc. There were also major professional visits to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Astronaut Centre (EAC), CERN, ESA-ESOC, OHB, CRATER, EUMETSat etc.”

Rushanka with European Space Agency (ESA) Astronauts Paolo Nespoli and Jean-Francois Clervoy at  the ISU SSP International Astronaut Panel
Rushanka with European Space Agency (ESA) Astronauts Paolo Nespoli and Jean-Francois Clervoy at the ISU SSP International Astronaut Panel

What made this stellar experience possible?

The answer? Scholarships!!!

Rushanka received The Kalpana Chawla Scholarship and Ray Williamson Future Fund Scholarship Award to attend Space Studies Program of International Space University.

The scholarship program is established to honor the Indian-American Astronaut, Dr Kalpana Chawla, the scholarship project is focused on developing strong technical and leadership qualities with talented Indian women.

Rushanka is now on the Board of Advisors committee for The Kalpana Chawla Project for Innovation, Entrepreneurism and Space Studies at the International Space University (ISU) program. The scholarship program is established to honor the Indian-American Astronaut, Dr Kalpana Chawla, the scholarship project is focused on developing strong technical and leadership qualities with talented Indian women.

Intending to find talented post-graduate Indian women who share Dr Chawla’s selfless and passionate pursuit of education and excellence, the program really knew what they were doing when they chose Rushanka. [Rocket Women also supports the International Space University through our apparel – proceeds support a scholarship helping to send a rocket woman to study at the ISU Space Studies Program (SSP)!]

Rushanka would also like to thank her generous supporters from Kacific Broadband Satellites Ltd and Professional Martian LLC who helped her connect with space enthusiasts from around the world, all while increasing her love of space technology.

“I am thankful to my compassionate family, especially my husband who consistently encourages me and stands by me in every walk of life”.

Rushanka with her husband Amit Pate

Are there any standout moments from your time with ISU?

“ISU’s Space Studies Program was an incredible interdisciplinary experience. I was in the Space Humanities department, where we connected space to the human experience, both on Earth, and what it may be like on other planets such as a Mars habitat. We learned critical communication tools, analyzed the ethical considerations of finding life on Mars, and collaborated on creative pursuits, including a space mission patch design and creating videos for ISU’s Space Studies Program.

One of the biggest highlights was hiking together with Norah Patten and Loretta Whitesides and experiencing the Overview Effect, which allowed me to see how connected we all are, across borders, nationalities, cultures, and politics. I made great connections with the people in my department and gained very useful skills in diplomatic communication and creative thinking.

Rushanka graduating from the International Space University (ISU) SSP19 Program

The Space Studies Program is designed to complement ISU’s 3Is concept. It captivated, nurtured and flourished the space insights of the participants from diverse nationalities, cultures, and disciplines – bridging gaps between different space realms.”

Rushanka, what is next for you?

“Space has space and scope for anything and anyone. I am dedicated to working for planetary exploration and natural resource management and trying to reach for my ambitious goals in the field of space research.”

What would be your one piece of advice for young space enthusiasts?

“Dive into the quest of your passion and try even harder after you reach your goal to achieve a still bigger one – as space has no limit and so do dreams”.

Payton Barnwell interviewing Rushanka Amrutkar-Pate