Aerospace is high tech but it is also a place where people understand family situations.



Early Life

I grew up in a lower middle class Kannada speaking family. My dad was in the post and telegraph department, so he would get transferred every 4-5 years. He was determined that we kids should receive a good education. Daddy didn’t care whether it was a boy or girl, it was like, you’ve got to do your best. He asked for a transfer to Pune when I was in my higher secondary, because it was known for excellence in education at that time. My brother and I were very close, he is just a year younger than me. Both of us were extremely focused on education. That’s all I can remember. We didn’t do too much else, didn’t go anywhere, didn’t hang out with friends. So that’s how I made it to IIT Bombay. Honestly, I think it was just hard work and determination. Maths was my strength and my father really encouraged me and demanded perfection, as much as possible. And then I started demanding it of myself. I suppose that’s how I became the first female recipient of the gold medal at IIT Bombay.

Life at IIT Bombay

I really enjoyed hanging out with the women in my wing. Otherwise, my focus was only on studies. I didn’t really talk to the boys in my class, so it was a bit isolating. I also remember being harassed by a guy who was working in the department, he used to follow me around. The security officer, a family friend, somehow managed to make that person stop. I didn’t think seriously about going abroad until maybe the fifth year. It was only when a close friend of my father insisted I must get the best education possible in the United States. My mom was not very happy about a young, unmarried girl going to study in a foreign land but dad overruled her. That’s how I came to Caltech in Pasadena, California.

Professional Journey

The legendary Prof. John Pierce was my advisor at Caltech. His areas of work included radio communications and microwave technology. It was under his leadership that the first communications satellite, the Telstar, was developed. So ‘Picture quality in Synthetic Aperture Radar Imaging’ became the subject of my PhD. Caltech has very close relationships with the Jet Propulsion Lab, JPL. So I used to work at JPL during the summer and even during the school year, related to my thesis. After my PhD, I worked for JPL for a year. and I got married to a fellow graduate student, Tim Gallagher. I was brought up very conservatively and it was not easy to explain it to my parents. When Tim moved to San Jose, I started working at Ford Aerospace. Over the course of my career, I developed and managed proposals for commercial satellite operators worldwide. I worked with organisations like Ford Aerospace, Space Systems Loral and Globalstar in key technical leadership positions. The best part of my career at Globalstar in 2011 (before I went to Loral) was to be the Program Director for the second generation of Globlstar satellites. I spent 6 memorable weeks at Baikonur Cosmodrome for the launch of those satellites.

Work-Life Balance

When I had my first child, my daughter, I decided to stop working. My husband was very supportive. He said, do whatever you want, I earn enough to maintain a decent lifestyle. My son was born three years later. So I was at home with the kids for close to seven years. At best, l I did some part time consulting, 8 or 10 hours a month. I was lucky to be able to go back to the same company. Aerospace is a high tech profession, but it is also a place where people understand family situations. Even back then, they were accepting of the fact that I took some time off. When I was transitioning back, I had this remote terminal which allowed me to work from home. This was pre-internet and felt magical! My husband and I got divorced after 27 years of marriage. My kids were grown up by then and I was able to travel, for instance, to Baikonur for 6 weeks at a time, without feeling like I was missing out on any responsibilities at home.

Advice to Young Women

If you want to work in space, you probably want to get a Master’s or PhD in that area. But I’ve seen so many people who are not even technical succeed in the satellite world. People stumble into it through operations or programming and learn on the job. So don’t be so hung up on what you study. If you’re interested in a field for whatever reason, it catches your eye, even if it’s later in your career, go ahead and explore it. Just make sure your fundamentals are strong.