Engineering Heroes: AAE's Thendral Kamal meets Sirisha Bandla
It’s July 11, 2021, and Virgin Galactic is sending its VSS Unity on a suborbital test flight that will include two Purdue University alumnae.
As Sirisha Bandla and fellow School of Aeronautics and Astronautics alum Beth Moses are getting strapped into their seats aboard VSS Unity just before 9 a.m. local time in New Mexico in the United States, 18-year-old Thendral Kamal and her 12-year-old sister Nila are settling into cushy seats aboard their couch and pulling up Virgin Galactic’s website to watch the global livestream on a Sunday afternoon in the United Arab Emirates.
Bandla is getting ready to realize a lifelong dream that formed as a kid lying on her grandparents’ house’s roof in India, enamored by the vastness of space, the brightness of the stars, the possibilities filling her mind. The awe produced knowledge-gathering at every turn, devouring books that featured pictures of Earth from space, of the depths, the unfathomable colors. The knowledge produced passion to be connected to it all in some way and the curiosity for the potential of it all.
Thendral is getting emotional, really, knowing she’s ready to watch a rare moment in history, especially for her generation, and she naturally starts thinking about how she so desperately wants to experience this some day. How she has been thinking about little else since her parents took her to an astronomy viewing at the Sharjah Academy for Astronomy, Space Sciences and Technology when she was 13 and how thunderstruck she was seeing the pale gray surface of the moon. How she left there and needed to absorb as much as she could about worlds beyond our own, reading about the moon that night, reading about the first man to walk on it, Neil Armstrong, mind drifting to how beautiful it’d be to explore it.
Back in New Mexico, mother ship VMS Eve fires up, and Bandla’s moment is set in motion, this unconventional and unexpected path to becoming an astronaut. In minutes, SpaceShipTwo releases, a three-second free fall before the motor lights and nearly 4 Gs kick in, and the turn to space starts, and then soon, so soon, Bandla is in the midst of the stars she got lost in as a kid. The indescribable brightness of the Earth piercing through a window, reflecting off her in-awe face, fighting against the deepest dark, one she’d been incapable of imagining. She unstraps.
About 54 miles below, on Earth, Thendral is on the literal edge of her seat, leaning, leaning, leaning toward the TV, almost as if she’s trying to superimpose herself in the moment happening before her eyes. It’s feeling like her moment, too — seeing another woman of color do this, giving her a living representation to model for her life’s hopes. Yes, there’d already been women of Indian descent who’d been in space. But those accomplishments were before Thendral was born. This? Bandla getting ready to seize this moment? She turns to Nila, making sure she’s paying attention and underlies the importance of what’s happening.
Bandla has much to do once Unity 22 reaches weightlessness, but there are enough seconds within the about three-minute professional assignment that she allows herself to feel the pure, body-seeping joy. An Indian flag proudly displayed on her arm, a Purdue AAE pennant proudly tucked in her breast pocket, Bandla does a somersault, bounds about the cabin, peers out the window. Too soon, she’s strapping back in and readying for descent. Minutes later, after Unity 22 lands, Bandla steps out, parents awaiting to crush her — well, at least literally the sunglasses hanging from her suit — with congratulatory hugs.
Thendral and Nila start cheering, grasping the weight of what just happened, recognizing it’s no small feat for an Indian-born woman to fly to space.
Right then, Thendral knows she’s made the right decision to attend Purdue that fall. That was where Bandla attended — also majoring in aeronautical and astronautical engineering like Kamal intends.
That was the “Cradle of Astronauts” — and that title is one Kamal wants more than she can properly articulate.
And that’s where she’d meet her hero, less than two years later.
Just not in the way she thought.
‘Oh my goodness’
Thendral Kamal was fully prepared.
Knowing she had an opportunity not only to meet Purdue alumna Bandla, a commercial astronaut and Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs, but to actually have a sit-down conversation with her that’d be filmed as part of a new Purdue Engineering series so she could have that kind of keepsake forever? That kind of opportunity necessitated homework.
Kamal intently prepared a list of questions to ask, drawing from some of her own life experiences and wondering how Bandla’s compared, while being mindful enough to know in-the-moment follow-up questions were likely, too, so the initial list didn’t need to be long. Especially to fit into Bandla’s likely busy schedule, knowing she was back on the West Lafayette campus to be honored as an Outstanding Aerospace Engineer later that day.
Kamal even thought about how she’d respond to seeing Bandla for the first time, slightly concerned she could be moved to tears but intending to hold them back in an effort to not seem too fangirl. She analyzed whether a handshake made the most sense — that’d certainly be the more professional gesture — or if a hug would be too much?
On the afternoon of the meet, Kamal walked around the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering, happy to oblige a request to film extra video for the series. She stopped in the front of the building, which happened to be covered by a massive banner with Bandla on it; made the small steps and giant leap of the boot print trail on the ground outside the building; gave Neil a salute moving past his statue and more. Inside ARMS, she stopped to chat in front of a display about Professor Steven Collicott’s Zero-Gravity Flight Experiment class — she’d done a parabolic flight years before — and then landed in front of Bandla’s portrait on the “Cradle of Astronauts” wall on the third floor.
The last stop before heading to a conference room for the scheduled chat. Kamal figured she’d have a chance to take a deep breath and compose herself then, before stepping into the room to a waiting Bandla.
Except she didn’t.
While Kamal peered at Bandla’s photo, Bandla sidled up next to her and asked, “So which one’s your favorite?”
“Oh my goodness!” said a wide-eyed Kamal, quickly trying to cover the mouth that had dropped open.
No handshake here, as Bandla widened her arms while offering a “hello.”
Bandla is natural in the moment, as she has been at every turn since that July 2021 flight catapulted her to icon status.
Before and after
Before reality shifted, Sirisha Bandla was content. For nearly 10 years, she’d been an instigator for change for commercial spaceflight, petitioning governments to support the burgeoning industry, advocating the benefits of science research and technology advancement that included the start of human-tended suborbital research and working to educate in support of members of the “new space” generation of orbital and suborbital rocket companies.
She developed a passion she didn’t know she had — for space policy and being a touchpoint for a growing industry, wanting to be part of what made it successful. Her AAE education served as a solid foundation in technical expertise and communication, allowing her to understand and explain complex issues to both the public and policy makers.
Bandla started at Virgin Galactic in 2015 and built a team that grew the company’s presence in D.C. and its research portfolio through work with the science and technology community. By January 2021, she was promoted to vice president of government affairs and led company interactions with local, state and federal governments and was involved in their work with the Federation Aviation Administration, NASA science research and technology advancement and more.
The astronaut dream was on hold.
Until one Saturday night that she’ll never forget.
Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses, also a Purdue AAE alum, called to interrupt laundry night.
“Want to go to space?” he asked, as she was folding socks.
And then came the training for the suborbital flight.
And then came the buckling in.
And the unstrapping.
And the floating, the somersault, the experiment-running.
And the look out the window.
There is only “before” and “after” now.
Bandla has made appearances on NBC News and Good Morning America, to name a few national broadcasts. She has been on the cover of Vogue India. Her followers on Instagram increased by thousands in seeming days — there are nearly 25,000 now.
She is one of two Indian-born women to fly to space, following NASA astronaut Kalpana Chawla. Sunita Williams, of Indian descent, was a NASA astronaut whose two spaceflights to the International Space Station lasted more than 321 days.
Bandla doesn’t discount her place in that history because she understands its weight. When Bandla was growing up with visions of becoming an astronaut, Chawla was a role model, for the same reason Bandla is to Kamal and other young women of color: They can see themselves in their heroes.
“Seeing (Chawla) do the things that I wanted to do reduced the mental barrier I put up for myself,” Bandla said to Kamal, who is of Indian descent, during their conversation. “Just seeing someone you shared an identity with, a culture with, really allows you to put yourself in the head space that you can achieve almost anything you put your mind to.”
Grasping that fact doesn’t mean Bandla has to be as available as she’s been since joining such an elite group. But she makes time, especially when she returns to campus. She’s quick to offer a smile, a hello, say “yes” to a selfie or scribble an autograph, and her affable personality and ability to effortlessly carry on a conversation helps her relate to anyone who stops her, whether it’s a trembling undergraduate student, a parent or the new dean of the College of Engineering.
Thirty minutes before Bandla surprised Kamal near the astronaut wall, she saw her portrait on display on the Cradle of Astronauts wall for the first time. A father and son, likely a prospective student, walked by at that exact time and did a double take. Yes, that’s the same person as in that photo. Yes, she’s been to space. Could they get a quick photo?
Fifteen minutes after that, while Bandla is hiding in a side hallway, the recently appointed John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering Arvind Raman is stretching his legs on a walk down the hall. They’d never met, but she quickly is at ease, joking about her dad would love to pull that portrait off the astronaut wall. Or, better yet, take the banner off the side of the building to display on his own house.
Fifteen minutes after wrapping the conversation with Kamal, Bandla was taking photos outside of ARMS when she was approached by a Purdue student, a bit sheepishly. He’d missed an event earlier in the day she’d had with a student organization on campus because he had class. Could he get a quick photo?
Bandla always is happy to oblige. It’s not just that she understands the importance of those moments, regardless of how brief — she’ll never forget a quick meeting with Armstrong, after her “Boiler Up” drew his attention — but she also sees how moments add up to the larger picture of a path.
“It’s about giving back — because I wouldn’t be here if not for all the people who helped me along the way,” she said minutes before hopping up on the Armstrong statute to recreate a photo she’d taken in 2013. “There were incredible women who helped me in a field that’s predominantly still male. But there’s also a lot of, honestly, Purdue grads. … It’s that sense of community that you get here. Purdue is not only a prestigious engineering school in terms of the academic value is very high, but the value of mentorship and the network is also equally high, and I don’t know if people know that.”
Bandla’s affection for Purdue is evident whenever she’s back on campus. It’d been about a year and a half since her last visit — a return to accept another award — and this time she came back to see her portrait plastered on a 70-foot-high banner covering the side of Armstrong Hall, perhaps the most recognizable academic building on campus, and to another reasonably-sized one on a wall of astronauts.
She needed pictures in front of them, of course. Because Purdue matters, another topic that came up in her conversation with Kamal.
Thendral Kamal’s co-workers at Delta, where she’s doing a Co-op this semester, are getting tired of her infusing “small step” and “giant leap” into conversations, she said with a laugh.
But Kamal knows the Purdue brand, and she knows the value of being a Boilermaker. She won’t stop.
Bandla underscored the point, when answering Kamal’s question about resources and experiences Bandla took from Purdue to help in her journey to become an astronaut.
“First thing is the network you get at Purdue is incredible. We’re everywhere,” Bandla said with a laugh. “We’re running the world, basically. … I use what I learned at Purdue to this day. I chose to come to Purdue because it has the most astronauts. I was like, I have to help my odds in any way that I can.”
Kamal had the same thought.
The first and last astronauts who stepped on the moon are Purdue alumni, and her goal is to add another Purdue “first,” by being the first woman to set foot on Mars. Her singular focus on that goal has helped her win a research competition for Rashid Space Centre’s UAE Zero Gravity program, in which she tested an experiment she built; has led to a TEDx talk about why investing in Mars matters; and, most recently, earned her a spot in the 2023 cohort of Brooke Owens Fellows.
And led to meeting her industry hero, which did not disappoint.
“She’s just like me,” Kamal said after the conversation. “I see myself in her shoes and that’s the most important thing about representation. One of the biggest aspects of the reason why we push for representation for more women of color and underrepresented minorities to be the face of the aerospace industry is so girls can see themselves in the shoes of their heroes. That’s what I was able to do.”