The extended family of Sirisha Bandla, one of the six crew members in the Virgin Galactic VSS Unity 22 spaceflight that created history in space tourism on July 11, are on cloud nine after her feat.
Bandla, 34, an astronautical engineer and vice president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, became the third woman of Indian origin to fly to space after NASA astronauts Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams.
Bandla is the second India-born woman, after Chawla, to fly to space. Born in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, Bandla was raised in Houston, Texas.
The VSS Unity 22 reached the 100-km altitude that marks the entry into space after taking off from Spaceport America in New Mexico and returned to the base after a flight of about 90 minutes. Onboard were Astronaut 004 Bandla, accompanied by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and two other crew mates.
“We are on cloud nine and relieved after 10 days of silence and holding our emotions,” Bandla’s paternal aunt Manjulatha Kanneganti, who lives in Dallas, Texas, told indica News on Bandla’s safe return.
Kanneganti said tears of joy rolled down the cheeks of Bandla’s mother and the astronaut’s father was speechless with pride and happiness. Her parents work for the United States federal government. They were working from India and came from there on July 8. They are now in New Mexico.
Were the family members scared about Bandla’s flight? “Yes, but then the thought was, why to fear when Sir Branson is traveling,” Kanneganti said.
Bandla was from childhood “the go-getter kind, and gets what she wants,” Kanneganti said.
“We were in shock. We are a close-knit family and we meet quite often with each other,” the aunt said.
She said when Bandla’s parents arrived from India, “we had dinner and talked about Sirisha for few minutes and the next day on July 9 visited the local Hindu temple and prayed not just for Sirisha but all the crew members.”
“We had special puja of different gods and we are going to go again to offer our prayers,” said Kanneganti.
Kanneganti said that Bandla had not told the family about her space assignment till the last minute. Bandla, the aunt said, was supposed to get married this Memorial Day weekend but due to the pandemic, it has been postponed to next year.
So at first when Bandla was strict about her diet and was going to the gym, the aunt thought like many new brides do, Bandla, too, was working on her wedding day figure.
“We never knew she is trying to go to space! She kept it such a secret,” Kanneganti said.
Bandla’s interest in space grew when she was in third and fourth grade, she said.
“I think her aspiration started back then [on school field trips]. And maybe with growing age that willingness become stronger and stronger and she started looking to get into that kind of field,” Kanneganti said.
Bandla got her pilot’s license — before she got her driver’s license — when she was in high school and her parents supported her in what she wanted to do.
Kanneganti said they will celebrate once her parents return from New Mexico.
Jay Talluri, president of the Telugu Association of North America, pointed out that TANA had in 2015 felicitated Bandla with a Youth award.
“It feels great today,” Talluri said. “She did an amazing thing.”
[Above photo: Sirisha Bandla(left) with parents and sister]