When business magnate Richard Branson fulfilled his old dream of flying to space on Sunday, among the five people who accompanied him on the “magical” trip was a 33-year-old woman with roots in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur.
Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations at Branson’s Virgin Galactic, became the third woman of Indian origin — after NASA astronauts Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams — to fly to space.
“From a very young age she had this ambition to explore the sky, the moon, and the stars. Sirisha had set her eyes on space, and I am not at all surprised that she is all set to realise her dream,” Sirisha’s grandfather Dr Bandla Nagaiah told The Indian Express before the flight commenced on Sunday.
“After hearing the news that she was part of the team to go into space, I called her. She was driving but still answered the call. When I congratulated her, she said yes, finally it is happening, and said ‘thank you, thata (grandfather)’,’’ Dr Nagaiah said.
Branson, Sirisha, and four others — pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, and lead operations engineer Colin Bennett — travelled to the edge of space before returning to earth aboard the Galactic Unity 22 spacecraft.
“She visited Guntur last November, and as usual she was full of energy and bubbling with ideas. She did not talk about going to space when she visited last time but she did mention that she was doing very significant work. She is very decisive and has very good leadership qualities,” Nagaiah, who retired as an agriculture scientist from Acharya N G Ranga Agricultural University, said.
Sirisha was born in Chirala in her maternal grandmother’s home. The family then moved to Tenali in Guntur. Till the age of 5, Sirisha spent time between Hyderabad where Nagaiah lived, and Tenali at her grandmother’s house.
Thereafter, she travelled to Houston to join her parents in the United States. Sirisha’s parents, who are US government employees, are currently posted in India.
Sirisha and her elder sister are very affectionate, and have always stayed in touch with their grandparents, Nagaiah said. All they had to do was call on their phone and leave a message, and the sisters would call back without fail, he said.
“For several years, they used to visit India almost every year, sometimes twice. In Houston, Sirisha was attracted to the activities and news of NASA’s space exploration. She was keen on aeronautics and aerospace since she was very young. I knew that she was destined to do great things,” he said.
“When she was a child, she used to ask a lot of questions about aeroplanes, the sky, space travel etc. She used to write down her thoughts and ideas about sky and space, which I now think were documents of what she wanted to do in the future,’’ Nagaiah said.
“I am recovering from Covid-19, but I am so happy and proud to talk about my granddaughter. She is making everyone proud. It is one thing to dream about going to space but to actually achieve it requires a lot of dedication and perseverance and she has that in plenty.’’
Nagaiah said Sirisha did her Bachelor’s in aerospace aeronautical engineering from Purdue University, and later did a Masters in Business Administration from George Washington University.
“When she returns with the feather of space travel in her cap, I will have a wonderful chat with her,” Nagaiah said.