VR Lalithambika, who hails from the city, has been appointed the head of the ISRO directorate in Bangalore that is in charge of human spaceflight program

Once upon a time, there was a little girl, who, perched on the arm of her grandfather, would watch sounding rockets fly up into the sky. Ramakrishna Pillai, the grandfather, is no more, but his granddaughter has recently appointed the head of the ISRO directorate in Bangalore that is in charge of ‘Gaganyaan’ - the space agency’s ambitious human spaceflight program (HSP).

‘’He was a mathematician and he was interested in such things,’’ recalls V R Lalithambika who hails from Thiruvananthapuram. ‘’In those days, there was a sounding rocket launch every Wednesday evening at 7.30 pm and you could see it fly.’’ The control systems specialist who was until recently was deputy director at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) has now shifted to Bangalore for her new assignment.

Two weeks back, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a huge fillip to HSP with an Independence Day announcement that India would put an astronaut into space by 2022. The HSP has been in the works for some time with a team of scientists and engineers at VSSC and other ISRO units working on its various aspects. ISRO had tested the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III (GSLV Mk III) as well as the crew module prototype among other things.

‘’It’s a joint effort. A lot of people have been working on it for some years now. ISRO’s like a big family. It’s my good fortune that I work in such a place,’’ says Lalithambika who describes Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space programme, as a great visionary.

With a career spanning three decades in ISRO, Lalithambika has been part of many of the space agency’s historic missions. Lalithambika is an alumnus of the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram (CET), where she did her BTech and MTech.

Her MTech was in control systems, which, in layman’s terms, is what makes rockets fly accurately. Her PhD, which she took after joining VSSC, also was on the same topic.

‘’It’s a challenging task,’’ she says of her job. Lalithambika had joined VSSC in 1988, after brief stints at the NIT and FACT. She rose to become a deputy director in 2014. Lalithambika is married to Pradeep Kumar, a former pollution control board senior engineer.