NEW YORK: Sirisha Bandla vaulted into space July 11 on board VSS Unity 22, becoming the third Indian American astronaut to do so. The Virgin Galactic's spacecraft reached the 53.5 miles altitude that marks the entry into space after taking off from Spaceport America in New Mexico and returned to the base after a flight of about 90 minutes.
Astronaut 004 Bandla, accompanied by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, two other crew mates and two pilots touched the space mark. Before the flight Branson signed himself dramatically as Astronaut 001 and gave the Astronaut 004 rank to Bandla, 34. During the space flight, Bandla was scheduled to conduct experiments designed by the US government's pioneer space agency, NASA involving plants in microgravity.
Bandla, the Virgin Galactic vice president for Government Relations, is an astronautical engineer by training. Before her flight, she said on an interview that her adventure was an "incredible opportunity to get people from different backgrounds, different geographies and different communities into space.”
The others on the VSS Unity flight were Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor; and Colin Bennett, the lead operations engineer, which was piloted by former Royal Air Force test pilot Dave Mackay and former NASA Space Shuttle Commander Michael Masucci. The spacecraft was carried by a twin-bodied carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, for the first leg on its way to space before being launched for the final leg.
The launch was delayed by about 90 minutes because stormy weather overnight delayed the flight preparations. Bandla is the third Indian American in space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Pandya Williams and the fourth person of Indian descent, the first being Rakesh Sharma, who flew on a Soviet spacecraft.
But unlike them, Bandla did not go into orbit and her flight was a short one to demonstrate the capability of Branson's space program, a breakthrough in the commercialization of space travel by private entrepreneurs. Bandla was born in Andhra Pradesh and grew up in Houston, Texas. Her passion to learn more about space inspired her to pursue a bachelor's degree in aeronautical-astronautical engineering from Purdue. She also holds an MBA from George Washington University.
Andhra Pradesh Governor Biswa Bhusan Harichandan and Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy hailed Bandla's space flight. Bandla's grandfather Venkat Narasaiah savored her space moment at his home in Tenali. Narasaiah and his wife Rama Devi took care of Bandla during her childhood before she emigrated to the US.
Branson beat his business rival, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is set to take off on July 20 on board his space company Blue Origin's spacecraft. It was a space race between the maverick British billionaire, the global American entrepreneur Bezos, and Elon Musk, the developer of the Tesla electric vehicle, vying for domination of the multi-billion-dollar private space business that would range from tourism and research to commercial and government satellite deployment.