Srimathy Kesan – Nurturing India’s Next Generation of Space-Scientists

Srimathy Kesan
Srimathy Kesan

Stars, believe it or not, are an integral part of our lives. Starting from the biggest star that sustains our life, the twinkling stars in lullabies and nursery rhymes, the stars that we use to navigate and the metaphorical stars that we want to reach when describing our ambition. And if you are an Indian, stars also decide health, wealth, marriage and even kids, courtesy, Astrology. It’s nearly impossible to look up at a clear starry night and not be intrigued by those twinkling lights. And if stars do shine for you, the sky or even space is not the limit.

As a kid, like million others, the moon, the stars and the universe were the perfect confidantes for Srimathy Kesan, who would send every wish up in the universe. An ambitious young girl, Srimathy was good at academics and great at sports, and was part of the NCC as well. She was the only girl cadet to give a sword salute to the CM and then Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, General Krishna Rao on NCC day parade at Secunderabad Parade Grounds.

Senior Under Officer Srimathy still vividly remembers her participation in the PM rally at Delhi Republic Day Parade on January 26, 1992. She was the Best Cadet of Andhra Pradesh and the Parade Commander too. She also was a basketball player and until recently played Badminton at the state level. With due respect to her credentials, at a young age of 18, she was about to secure a position in the army without writing the exams. But the stars had some other plans. The next 16 years bound her to the household duties. All these years, Srimathy always had a feeling that she was here for a purpose. It’s not just a marriage or giving birth to a child, or being a sister or any other role. And until that purpose is attained, there’s no sleep or time to relax.

Finding the Purpose

Apart from being a mother, during her me-time, Srimathy would take up activities ranging from giving voice-over to making ad films and from penning scripts to running a travel boutique. During one such travel conference, she met an old friend from the NCC days, Ms Reema Sisodia, who worked as an editor in Travel Express. Ms Reema proposed Srimathy’s name for an international conference at Florida in the US, in February 2009. And that’s also when the stars changed Srimathy’s destiny.

Reliving the day, Srimathy says, “When I visited the NASA booth, I came to know they conduct a space camp for kids and also mentioned that no students come from India. Hence, I had invited the Space coast Director and team to Chennai, to speak to the Indian audience about their Space program. Kennedy Space Centre – NASA gave me the recognition as their ambassador. That helped me organize a meeting of 30 children and their parents at a hotel in Chennai to initiate the NASA educational mission for the children of India.”

After a few initial hiccups like parents’ concern, arranging visas and more, finally, she found herself standing at the gates of NASA. “When I first stepped into NASA, truly, I was crying,” recalls Srimathy. “Going there, touching rockets and satellites, the ambiance, it kind of gives you goosebumps, even though you are not from that background, you’re not an astronaut or you’re not an aerospace engineer, still you are here.” Since then, she has traveled to NASA with about 3500 students till date.

These regular visits, apart from bringing immense joy and pride, also stirred another emotion within Srimathy. It dawned upon her that taking children was not the only thing she wanted. She found this huge gap in the outer-space industry in India. There was nothing as such for students in space. And there’s nothing in the textbooks also. “My inner voice told me; my goal was creating scientists for the country. Pushing to do something creative, and totally out of the box, the voice kept saying Why don’t we also launch satellites? So, I thought I should do that. That’s where it all started. And then I said, Okay, let’s make satellites,” recalls Srimathy.

Reaching for the Stars

If only a satellite could be built with dreams, reaching stars would be easier. Right now, Srimathy needed a team to realize her dream. Thus, began her hunt for young geniuses through a competition called Young Scientist India, because creating scientists for the country was her main goal, no matter how young they are. She believes when we are young, we can do everything very creatively, smartly, boldly and without the fear of mockery. The first child she took into her wings was Rifath, a student journalist and an eighth-grader at the time. Rifath, who is now a lead scientist, shares the same penchant for satellites and everything space as Srimathy. She went on to enroll six more kids and a team of seven was made. Thus, started the quest to make their first satellite under the company Space Kidz India(SKI).

The next step was to get all the permissions in place. Their satellite, or High-Altitude Balloon, was to get cleared by the Defence Ministry, the Aviation Ministry, the Airport Authority and more. “We launched it and it became a big hit and very exciting. So next up, we wanted to send an orbital satellite, “says Srimathy. After the launch, a lot of appreciation messages poured in from the West.

An aerospace organization from America sent a requirement to build a cube satellite, of given dimensions and mass, that could be filled with electronics and more. Sensing this as a huge opportunity, they made the CubeSat with 27 sensors and it got massive media attention.

Dreams, as Endless as Space

No Indian celebration is complete without a round of sweets. Fresh after the success of CubeSat, the kids wanted to relish Gulab Jamuns made by Srimathy. Apart from ticking the taste buds, the sweet dish also ticked scientific nerve in Rifath. They now wanted to send an orbital satellite as small and light as the gulab jamuns. ‘How’, was the next question which received an answer from the universe in the form of a competition, ‘Cubes in Space’ by NASA in collaboration with idoodlelearning Inc, and Colorado Grant Consortium. The competition required participants to design a scientific component weighing just 30 gms which would be fitted in the cube designed by the company and the best of the proposals will get a free ride in the rocket.

Team SKI sent their proposal saying instead of the cube provided, they would love to try their in-house shell cast – made of carbon fibre polymers that could replace aluminium which is currently used in making satellites – their own structure and electronics. Their proposal was chosen and SKI made the world’s lightest and first-ever 3D printed satellite, the KALAMSAT and launched it through NASA’s rocket, Terrier Orion, on the 22nd of June, 2018 from Wallops, Virginia.

The Stars and Beyond

One goal down, SKI’s next aim was launching a Satellite from Sriharikota, with help from ISRO. And the universe answered in the form of a proposal and a strict deadline from ISRO. SKI had to ready their KALAMSAT V2 in 6 days. The KALAMSAT V2 was to be their next dream project. KALAMSAT V2 is also meant to strengthen communication during disasters. Through tireless efforts, the team did it and launched the KALAMSAT V2 on 24th January 2019.

SKI is already on the road to developing the next satellite, christened VIKRAMSAT, which should be ready for launch by July 2020. But building Satellites is not the only thing Srimathy does via SKI. It is a platform through which she builds a generation of young scientists who are ready to go beyond textbooks, prove their mettle and build a new scientific India. She believes that every child born in this world is creative and it is just a matter of time and support that they identify themselves.

She believes that kids today need positive mentors, and she is trying her best to be one and leave a footprint for the younger generation. In 2012, she had the opportunity to take about 100 children to perform at the London Olympics. This was the first time ever an Indian contingent performed at any Olympics. So, she believes that it all boils down to the fact as to how we utilize the opportunities that come our way. She says, “You have to be there at the right place at the right time, and you can definitely make your dream come true.

Teaching them Young

SKI is also taking various initiatives to spread awareness among kids and how they can join SKI to learn more. Coding being the next big thing, SKI is about to come up with a Nano computer that can help children learn coding at a very young age and provide all the required support online. Developed by the kids at SKI and named Mango Plus and is going to hit the market very soon. Srimathy adds, “Apart from that, we do a lot of camps and projects related to IoT, Blockchain and developing Real-time solutions. A lot of people have approached us and we want to deliver unique solutions.”

Underlining the power of karma, Srimathy signs off saying, “Just get on to action, that’s what I believe. Whatever I’m doing might just be one drop in the ocean. But I’m happy at least I’m able to contribute that one drop.”

The next time you find a kid looking for answers in the stars, you know who to contact.

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