By Arul Louis
New York, July 11 (IANS) Sirisha Bandla soared spacewards on Sunday on board VSS Unity 22 in quest to touch the heavens and become the fourth astronaut of Indian descent.
The Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico lofted by a twin-bodied carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, that would release it at 15.5 km to fly onward into space.
Astronaut 004 Bandla, accompanied by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and two other crewmates and two pilots, is reaching for the 100-km altitude that marks the entry into space.
Before the flight, Branson signed himself dramatically as Astronaut 001 and gave the Astronaut 004 rank to Bandla.
During the 90-minute space flight, Bandla is scheduled to conduct experiments designed by the government’s pioneer space agency, NASA involving plants in microgravity.
Bandla, the Virgin Galactic Vice President for Government Relations, is an astronautical engineer by training.
She will be the third Indian American in space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Pandya Williams and the fourth person of Indian descent — the first being Rakesh Sharma, who flew on a Soviet spacecraft.
Another Indian Amrican, Raj Chari, is in the US astronaut programme and is scheduled to command a flight later this year.
Branson’s flight is a breakthrough in commercialisation of space travel by private entrepreneurs.
(Arul Louis can be reached at email@example.com and followed @arulouis)