Akshata Krishnamurthy’s fascination with space began as a child as she wondered about what lies beyond our planet. Her curiosity was fuelled by weekly visits to the planetariums and air shows in Bengaluru. 

It was no surprise then that this young girl would want to pursue a career in aerospace. But how, where, and what to do to achieve this dream was a path she had to navigate on her own. 

With incredible talent and a dogged pursuit of her goal, she became a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which was a huge deal for the student who studied in a state board school and came from a middle class family.

Today, this gritty woman works as an aerospace engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 

And her journey was not an easy one. 

Navigating through the various hurdles of having an education abroad to setting foot at NASA as a full-time employee took her almost 15 years. But this 35-year-old is making it easy for others by sharing her experiences on social media, and mentoring them. Here’s her story. 

In pursuit of the universe

Akshata works as a Principal Investigator and Space Systems Engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on two space missions. She is the mission science phase lead on the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar mission (NISAR) and robotics systems engineer on the MARS 2020 Perseverance rover, operating the rover on MARS. 

This lifelong tryst with space took roots at an airshow in Bengaluru in 2003. It was the Aero India show at the Yelahanka air force base that perhaps started it all. The aerobatic manoeuvres of the Sukhoi Su-30 pilots left the youngster captivated.

“I was always interested in science and maths and wanted to know more about the origins of our universe. I wanted to know more about where we come from, and what is out there in the sky. I also wanted to travel around and explore but we didn’t have the resources for that,” Akshata tells The Better India.

Determined, she fueled her curiosity with whatever source she had access to, like visiting the local factories in her native Karnataka village or visiting the planetariums. 

Calling herself an ‘explorer’, Akshata would find joy in understanding the hows and whys of everything she laid eyes upon. This sense of reasoning helped her when she pursued engineering later. 

A major turning point in her life was reading about the Hubble Space telescope which ignited her passion for aerospace.

“In the early 2000s, watching astronauts perform spacewalks while servicing the Hubble telescope was a huge inspiration. It made me dream of looking at Earth from the vast reaches of space and experiencing what they experienced,” shares the rocket scientist.

Carving her own path

“I wanted to become an astronaut and that was a clear goal in my mind,” recalls Akshata. In the 90s, she knew of Rakesh Sharma, Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams. While Sharma was in the Indian air force, the other two were US citizens. 

Akshata works as a Principal Investigator and Space Systems Engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
Akshata works as a Principal Investigator and Space Systems Engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

“At the time, India didn’t have a human space programme. You either became a cosmonaut with Russia or you became an astronaut with the US space programme. There were no Indians who weren’t US citizens in the programme then,” adds Akshata.

She soon discovered that a large percentage of astronauts had actually studied at MIT.  “Since then, I knew that I had to study at MIT as I felt that it would provide me with a good chance to go to space. MIT has actually sent 44 astronauts to space and most of them pursued their PhDs here,” she adds.

This gave the young schoolgirl a clear path to focus on. 

She then became the only female student in her mechanical engineering stream at RV College of Engineering in Bengaluru, graduating in 2010. 

Following this, she got a full ride to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign to pursue a masters in aerospace engineering.

The real challenge before Akshata presented itself in the form of getting an aerospace job in the US without a citizenship or a green card. To be accepted as a doctoral candidate at MIT, she would need some work experience, she learned. 

“I came here alone and didn’t have any support. I kept doing research projects and publishing papers to add to my credentials to show that I can create an impact. Every opportunity I got was never luck or coincidence, it was through hard work,” the engineer shares. 

While pursuing her masters, she started writing to professors at MIT that she wanted to work with them for her PhD. It was only on her third attempt that she was selected. 

“I honed my skills and worked outside my curriculum but was still waitlisted as not all space projects can take foreign nationals since they are funded by the US government and have restrictions. But when I was waitlisted the second time, I wrote to all the professors at MIT asking for a chance to work with them for a year. Finally, I heard back from professor Sara Seager that there was a project I could work on,” she adds.

Professor Seager is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT who focuses on exoplanet research, which is the discovery of new planets. She offered her a temporary research associate position for a year.

At that time, Akshata had two options — take a well-paying job at the likes of Google or Amazon without worrying about her visa or career, or take a risk and work on a new research project which was incredibly exciting. 

It was a no-brainer.

After working for a year on exoplanet research, she applied to the MIT PhD programme again, and as they say, third time’s the charm. Under Professor Seager, and in a fully-funded programme, she finally got her PhD in 2020. 

“My doctorate is in aeronautics and astronautics but I worked on the boundary of science and engineering, focusing on developing space telescopes and technologies to discover new planets,” she explains.

She went on to work full-time at the NASA JPL, which, she shares, was also a serendipitous occurrence.

“I worked there for three months as an intern and would meet with managers everyday asking for a job. But nobody could commit anything to me without a green card as it involves a lot of paperwork and complexity,” she says.

The last day of her internship arrived but she still had no job offers or interviews. Luckily, she had a presentation to give that day. A hiring manager in the audience was impressed with Akshata’s presentation and decided to give her a job. 

Even then, till the paperwork came through, the scientist recalls that she couldn’t breathe easy. 

When she entered NASA JPL as an employee in February 2020, that was one of the happiest days of her life. 

As Akshata’s story is surely inspirational, we ask, what kept her going? 

“I was adamant about getting into NASA and doing whatever it took to reach that goal. There was no plan B. I decided to bet on myself. Failure was not an option, but even so, everytime I failed, I took the learnings from it, and did something different to proceed further,” she says.

Realising that thousands of students in India need appropriate guidance, she started channels on Instagram and YouTube

Here are her 5 tips to pursue a career in space:

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  1. Be curious.

“Start by asking questions about everything you see, participate in science projects in school, understand how things work and read about the latest news in the space industry,” she advises.

“Do research projects, internships, get hands-on experience and understand how the industry works,” she adds.

  1. Build a strong foundation.

Try to find areas you’re passionate about. “Even in space, there are different areas one can work on, like astrophysics, astronomy, technology, engineering and more. Figure out which field of space interests you,” she adds.

  1. Pursue advanced degrees.

Once you’ve zeroed in on your interests, do a bachelors in science/engineering, masters and a PhD to equip yourself.

  1. Develop technical/hands on skills.

Given how important AI and Machine learning (ML) has become today, it’s important to develop these skills, states Akshata. “Master coding skills or do a robotics project as these are going to be used in space technologies being developed,” she mentions.

Complete research projects in well-known institutes and develop expertise in an area of interest.

  1. Network, Network, Network.

Try to build a professional network as early as possible by attending conferences, workshops, professional seminars and talks. 

“If there are any talks in planetariums or research institutes, make sure to attend them. You can ask questions to people who’ve achieved what you want to. You could find a mentor or it will at least help you chart your path,” she says. 

Edited by Padmashree Pande, Images Courtesy Akshata Krishnamurthy.

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