Saturday, December 4, 2021

Indian-American astronaut Sirisha Bandla returns from her maiden space flight

Indian-American astronaut Sirisha Bandla returned from her maiden space flight. She became the third Indian-origin woman to fly into space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams. Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma is the only Indian citizen to travel in space.

On the experience, Sirisha said, it was incredible and life-changing to see the Earth from space, during her trip on Virgin Galactic’s first fully-crewed suborbital test flight.

Bandla, a 34-year-old aeronautical engineer yesterday joined British billionaire Richard Branson and four others on board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Unity-22 to make a journey to the edge of space from the US state of New Mexico.

They reached an altitude of about 88 kilometres over the New Mexico desert – enough to see the curvature of the Earth. The crew experienced a few minutes of weightlessness before making a gliding descent back to Earth.

Seeing the view of Earth is so life-changing, but also boosts the rocket motor kicking in. The whole trip to space and back is just amazing, she told the media.

Ms Bandla described the moment as emotional and said, she had been dreaming of going to space since a young age and literally, it is a dream come true.

Always wanted to be an astronaut but wasn’t able to go in the traditional National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) role and took a very unconventional way to go to space and do believe that a lot of people are going to be able to have such experience, she said.

Ms Bandla’s poor eyesight could not meet the requirements to become a pilot or an astronaut for NASA. Bandla, who was born in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh and brought up in Houston, was astronaut No 004 and her flight role was Researcher Experience. The other crew members were two pilots and three other crewmates, including billionaire Branson.

Virgin Galactic – the business Branson started in 2004 – aims to fly private citizens to the edge of space. The trips are designed to permit passengers to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and observe the curvature of Earth.

Taking off on the VSS Unity spaceship from New Mexico and reaching an altitude of 85 km from Earth before returning, such a trip is called a suborbital flight.

Suborbital is when an object travels at a horizontal speed of about 28,000 km/hr or more, it goes into orbit once it is above the atmosphere. Satellites need to reach that threshold speed in order to orbit the Earth. Such a satellite would be accelerating towards the Earth due to gravity, but its horizontal movement is fast enough to offset the downward motion so that it moves along a circular path. Any object travelling slower than 28,000 km/hr must eventually return to Earth. However, this spacecraft travelled far enough to reach the edge of space.

These are suborbital flights, because they will not be travelling fast enough to orbit Earth once they reach there. Such a trip allows space travellers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. The flight was first carried off the ground by a larger aeroplane to an altitude of around 15 km. From here, the vehicle blasted off the plane, achieving a height of around 85 km, where it momentarily reached zero vertical velocity. At this altitude, travellers were estimated to experience about four minutes of weightlessness. If an object travels as fast as 40,000 km/hr, it will achieve escape velocity and never return to Earth.

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