Sirisha Bandla may describe her career path as "unconventional," but her first decade in the aerospace industry has been a rewarding and impressive one nonetheless.
From her first engineering job designing components for advanced aircraft at L-3 Communications Integrated Systems, to an unexpected move into space policy with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, to her springboard to executive levels at Virgin Galactic.
Each small step along Bandla's journey played a role in producing her ultimate career goals.
And she was recognized for all of it in September.
Bandla (BSAAE '11) was honored with the "Young Engineering Alumni Award" at the Purdue Engineering Alumni Association dinner and awards presentation. She is the fifth AAE alum to be selected for the award, first presented in 2012.
"It has a really big meaning to me because Purdue was such a changing point in my trajectory in my career," Bandla said, "so to be honored by the College is very special."
Bandla was chosen by the EAA board before July 2021, which is significant because that's when arguably the true "giant leap" of her career occurred. As a mission specialist for Virgin Galactic's suborbital flight, Bandla became part of Purdue's Cradle of Astronauts. But, as underscored by the award, Bandla was considerably accomplished before becoming a commercial astronaut.
After graduating from Purdue, Bandla secured a job as an engineer at L-3 Communications Integrated Systems. But Steven Collicott had other ideas.
The AAE professor who'd connected with Bandla during his Zero-Gravity Flight Experiment course suggested Bandla join the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade organization in Washington D.C. that educates and advocates in support of members of the "new space" generation of orbital and suborbital rocket companies. She took the opportunity in a field that "I had no idea what I was doing originally," she said with a laugh, figuring in a few years she'd get back into conventional engineering.
She quickly found she fit at CSF and had a passion for space policy. Her AAE curriculum gave her a solid foundation in both technical expertise and communication. The former was especially a huge asset, as she was able to understand and communicate complex issues to both the public and policy makers.
"I loved that I was in a position to create a lot of change and create a lot of change quickly and to help grow this industry that I believed in and supported so much," she said. "I really wanted to be part of what made it successful."
Perhaps the most important piece of Bandla's time at CSF was her lengthy labors supporting the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that became federal law in 2015. It was one of the first bills she advocated for from start to finish, and she worked with CSF member companies to make sure all the priorities of the industry were reflected in the legislation.One of the big pieces of the legislation was extending the learning period for commercial suborbital companies to allow them to make systems safer for human spaceflight, allowing companies to be innovative in how they designed their human spaceflight system regulations.
"The aerospace engineering degree I got and all the schoolwork and skills and knowledge that I was able to get through my five years at purdue prepped me for all of these different opportunities that came my way.
- Sirisha Bandla
Bandla has the first page of the legislation framed and hanging in her office.
"That really helped spur the growth of our industry, in a time when launches were becoming more frequent, and especially for the start of commercial human spaceflight," she said. "It was a celebration for everyone who worked on it, both government and industry. It also was the year I transitioned to Virgin Galactic. It was perfect timing."
After starting at Virgin Galactic in 2015, she built up a team that grew the company's presence in D.C and its research portfolio through work with the science and technology community. She secured the latter responsibility, in part, because of her AAE experience.
As part of Collicott's 418 class in 2010, Bandla was selected to lead a student team that designed, built and tested a zerogravity flight experiment. The unique payload was selected by NASA, and the group tested it on NASA's KC-135A aircraft that simulates zero gravity.
"I was able to fly our research payload on parabolic flights, which was really the catalyst for me getting the research portfolio, which is such an important and fulfilling part of my job right now," she said.
As vice president for government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, Bandla leads all of the company's interactions with local, state and federal governments and is involved in their work with the FAA, NASA science research and technology advancement, including the start of human-tended suborbital research, among other things.
"My trajectory was not a straight line that I intended to reaching my goal. There were a lot of curves, a lot of turns, but eventually I got to work for the company I really wanted to work for," she said. "The aerospace engineering degree I got and all the schoolwork and skills and knowledge that I was able to get through my five years at Purdue prepped me for all of these different opportunities that came my way. Some weren't engineering. At the moment, I'm not in a traditional engineering role. But everything I did at Purdue prepared me to be successful in every role I've been in."