‘She was never scared to fly alone’, says grandfather of Sirisha Bandla set to travel to space

The 34-year-old who is part of a six-member crew of ‘Unity 22’, Virgin Galactic's suborbital rocket-powered space plane, is on the verge of becoming only the third woman of Indian origin to fly into space.

As Sirisha Bandla gears up to travel to space on July 11, her grandparents back in Andhra Pradesh are flooded with phone calls and messages showering their blessings and wishing her the best. The 34-year-old who is part of a six-member crew of ‘Unity 22’, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital rocket-powered space plane, is on the verge of becoming only the third woman of Indian origin to fly into space.

Sirisha, currently the vice-president of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic in Washington DC in the US, is one of the four mission specialists in the company’s first fully-crewed spaceflight. According to its website, ‘Astronaut 004’, Sirisha “will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile”.

Bandla Ragaiah, her paternal grandfather based in Guntur, says it was at the age of four years that Sirisha, who was always curious about flying and had her eyes set on the skies, took to her first adventure.

“At the age of four, she travelled alone to the US where her parents and older sister lived. Though the person who accompanied her was known to us, he was a stranger to her. She was not scared to fly alone. She was excited,” the 83-year-old who worked as a principal scientist and professor at state-run Acharya NG Ranga Agriculture University told Indianexpress.com over the phone.

Sirisha had last visited her grandparents in November 2019.

Ragaiah is happy and proud that his granddaughter is set to achieve her dreams. He recalls her as a child who was decisive in her thoughts and determined to achieve them. “We don’t know how she got interested in aircraft, stars and skies. It has been in her since childhood. Whatever she has achieved today is on her own accord and her parents gave her full freedom to pursue her dream. She has proved her excellence and rose to the occasion,” said Ragaiah.

Her maternal grandfather, Venkat Narasiah, who retired as a Chemistry professor and lives at Tenali in Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh, echoed similar views. He recalled that Bandla used to visit NASA during the family’s stay in Houston. “She was so interested in flying an aircraft that even after she could not make it to NASA due to a condition in her eyesight, she pursued higher education in the same field. For those like her, she has done videos on YouTube — ‘lessons from Bandla Sirisha’ on how to get into the Space industry,” Narasiah told Indianexpress.com.

After securing a graduate degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from Purdue University, she also did an MBA from George Washington University. She was the Associate Director in the space policy department of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industrial association of spaceflight companies and L-3 Communications in Greenville, Texas, before joining Virgin Galactic in 2015. She currently serves as a member of the board of directors of the American Astronautical Society and Future Space Leaders Foundation.

Both her grandparents agree that Sirisha was a fearless and active child. “When I used to come home late at night, I used to discourage her from stepping out. But she would always tell me not to worry and that she could take care of herself,” said Ragaiah. “Even during a power cut when other children of her age would be scared of the pitch darkness around, she was not one of them,” Narsiah added.

B Muralidhar and Anuradha, Sirisha’s parents who work for the US government, are currently in Delhi and will be traveling to the US on Wednesday. Her sister Pratyusha is a Biological Science Technician in the US.

According to Virgin Galactic, the company for the first time will share a global live stream of spaceflight. “Audiences around the world are invited to participate virtually in the Unity 22 test flight and see first-hand the extraordinary experience Virgin Galactic is creating for future astronauts. The live stream will be available to watch on Virgin Galactic.com and will be simulcast on the Virgin Galactic Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook channels. It is expected to begin at 7:00 am MDT / 9:00 am EDT on the day of the flight,” it said.

Besides ‘Unity 22’, two additional test flights are planned before the company expects to commence commercial services in 2022.

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