In three decades of Minnie Vaid’s journalistic work, be it print, television or books, writing about injustice has always been a constant. Vaid, who had earlier written books about firebrand activists and personalities like Irom Sharmila and Binayak Sen and also about the people’s protest against Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant, has recently published her book Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines: ISRO’s Mission to Mars. The book is a fascinating look into the lives, struggles and triumphs of the women scientists who spearheaded India’s mission to Mars.

She informs, “The ISRO women scientists’ idea emerged after I attended a conference where three of the Mangalyaan women scientists spoke about their work and their lives. I was struck by their unassuming yet thoroughly confident and assertive narratives and thought perhaps there might be a book in there somewhere!”

When it comes to equal representation at the work place, women across industries are still struggling to get a seat on the table. The diversity of the Mars Mission was guaranteed by the project director S Arunan, who ensured that 40 percent of the team comprised of women, doing their assigned tasks on equal footing with their male counterparts and were not subordinate to them. Having said that, Vaid asserts, “The overall representation of technical/scientific women workforce in ISRO is nowhere near 40 percent, it’s approximately half the figure. The numbers are on their way up according to the senior scientists—male and female—I interviewed in the book.”

The overall representation of technical/scientific women workforce in ISRO is nowhere near 40 percent, it’s approximately half the figure.

Science is usually considered a man’s domain. And this was reinforced during the author’s research for the book. The starting point being that there was hardly any updated information about women scientists in India in terms of statistics –  “For example how many women head scientific institutions, how many reach director levels, are there any female directors of IITs or the IISc? Getting data was a struggle– to extrapolate any kind of comparison of the number of women scientists in the early years or even in the 80s as compared to today, inside ISRO and out, was also not possible due to lack of data.

Minnie Vaid
Minnie Vaid speaks about her book Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines: ISRO’s Mission to Mars.

In the actual interviews of the many scientists at varying levels that I met with at ISRO, the women themselves were categorical that work is assigned irrespective of gender. And successfully completed on time, irrespective of any family-work conflicts!”

Vaid adds that she found researching and conducting primary interviews with the 21 women scientists at different centres, different hierarchies and working for different missions and applications extremely rewarding.  But balancing the science part with the personal human stories of the scientists wasn’t always easy, especially for someone who gave up on physics in class 12!

“First time writers of non-fiction please do remember you’ll have to survive on fresh air and conviction and little else!” Vaid says.

The author who also makes documentary films and plans to write fiction soon informs that the most motivating factor about working on this book was, “listening about the ‘nerves of steel’ required to fulfill such missions, the calm temperament, the meticulous preparation in advance to ensure a successful outcome. These are mandatory qualities for the women scientists but aspirational ones for me…the calm nerves part in particular!”

Vaid recalls Harper Lee’s iconic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ as a piece of literature which influenced her choices as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, seeking out issues that speak of injustice, profiling stories of marginalized people that mainstream media doesn’t care to cover. She wants young girls to know that they don’t need to be a reclusive nerd to be a successful scientist.

“You can lead fruitful lives with your family and you can launch rockets into space at the same time. Like the Isro women do, with chutzpah, confidence and clarity.”

Picture Credit: Minnie Vaid/Speaking Tiger Publishing

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