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Anima-Patil Sable

Anima Patil-Sabale is a Scientist-Astronaut Candidate (Commercial Space Projects) and a Software and Aerospace Engineer. Anima is a wonder woman who works for NASA and is a pilot, scuba-diver, NASA Speaker, NASA Girls Mentor, Boy Scout’s Assistant Scout Master, STEM advocate, NASA Astronaut Aspirant, Artist, Singer, Dancer, Performer, all this and more! What a personality, Anima sure is an inspiration to Marathi ladies (or anyone really) out there who want to think out of the box and peruse their dreams.

Anima, her husband Dinesh and two sons live in the San Ramon area and amidst her busy schedule of wife, mother and NASA scientist; she graciously agreed to do this interview with us to answer our questions so that MCF readers could know more about her background her work and her goals. She was born and educated in Jalgaon, Maharashtra, and when she was 7 years old her interest in space travel was ignited when she saw a book on Astronauts/Space. Those childhood dreams of flying into space - which were shelved for various reasons - could be realized when she found out that NASA has a base in her ‘almost’ backyard.

सेन रमोन केलिफोर्निया ची मराठमोळी नार अनिमा -पाटील साबळे आता प्रवास करणार अंतरिक्षेत! एक आई , बायको , मुलगी सुन आणि वैज्ञानिक हे सगळं कसं साधता आले ? आपण त्यांच्या कडूनच जाणून घेऊया.

1) Was the NASA base in San Jose area, the Moffit /Ames Research Center?

Yes, I worked on the Kepler Mission for 3.5 years and then in the Intelligent Systems Division for last year at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

2) How did you find out about NASA base in the Bay Area?

When we came to the US, while settling down here, we would drive with friends on the weekends in and around the Bay Area. I would see NASA Ames every time I would pass it by on Hwy 101, enroute to SFO. That is how I came to know about it first. And then when I started doing my MS Aerospace Engineering at SJSU, I learned more about NASA Ames from professors and students. We would have professors from Ames as visiting lecturers.

3) Did you meet any female astronauts prior to your selection as Astronaut Candidate?

Let me clarify, I am a Scientist-Astronaut Candidate for Projects PoSSUM and PHEnOM, 2 commercial space projects. I am not a NASA Astronaut yet, but am aspiring to be one. 

I have met retired NASA Astronaut Yvonne Cagle in 2012 after I joined Ames. I met 'Hubble Hugger' (he flew a Hubble servicing mission hence the name) retired astronaut John Grunsfeld at Ames in 2012 when he was visiting to discuss our Kepler Mission in the role of Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

I met Sunita Williams when I was at Johnson Space Center during my role as a Commander for the HERA Mission. I met Astronaut Don Pettit and retired astronaut Nicole Stott during my project PoSSUM training.  

4) What about your goal of getting your pilot’s license?

I have been striving to get my pilots license done, should have been done long back, but it hasn't been a smooth journey. First school where I reached almost towards the end of my training and was getting ready for exam, the school shutdown fiasco happened. I had to drop flying lessons for about a couple of years after that. Raising 2 boys, fulltime work, studies, home (I cook clean every day, no maids here, so I am the maid too :-D ) I barely found enough time to focus on my flights. And in flying you cannot just resume your lessons after a gap, you have to start all over, from scratch, like a new students. Even a 2 or 3 week gap makes you what instructors say "rusty". So I have had to start over couple of times so far after gaps of 2 years the first time 

Have been flying on and off and have 105+ hours down and am almost in the last stretch. Hoping to complete this year!

5) When will you find out about your application to NASA’s Astronaut Selection program?

All applicants in this round will know the outcome in June, when they announce who has made it to the Astronaut Candidates. But we, who haven't made it kind of already know as we were not called for interviews for the highly-qualified round. So I did not make that cut. I will apply again next time when NASA asks for applications.

6) How did you manage to overcome the objections raised by your husband and parents to your plan to join the Master’s program in Aerospace Engineering?

I told them I have to do it no matter whether you support me or not. I cannot keep wondering all my life what if I had tried. I am not a person who can sit quiet knowing I will have opportunities if I try, "Maze mann mala khaat raahil" Their concern was how will I manage, I assured them trust me I will. I stuck by my decision; never let even friends who mocked my decision discourage me. But one big thing I did was, through my actions, I showed my parents and husband that I was balancing my duties for everyone well with my full time job and studies. My older son was 3 years when I started; I never ignored him or compromised on my duties for him as a Mom. I have always put everyone above my own self and over stretched myself at times and parents and Dinesh have seen that and so they have come to support me now. I had my younger one when I was completing coursework for my MS, my parents got visa that time and could come to support us. Their help with the new baby and home was invaluable, without their support I wouldn't have completed my MS!

7) How did you manage to juggle so many responsibilities at the same time: job, grad education, family, etc.?  Did anyone help you to run the household?

It was tough, especially with a 4-year-old and a baby. It was my sheer determination and then support from parents and husband. My Parents played a huge role in me being able to complete my MS (with a GPA of 3.34/4.0, better than several single bachelor students! :-)) . They came here when my younger one was 3 months, stayed for 6 months, went back for a month and came back again for another 4 months. Both Mom and Dad are super active even now. Mom would take care of the kitchen and Adi was my Dad's pittu, from feeding him his solids to putting him to bed to even changing his diapers, Papa did everything! In the time when Adi would nap, he would pick up the broom and sweep the floor, or be in the front and backyard tending to the plants, he loves gardening! Thanks to him, today our yard is so beautiful! I am totally obliged to my parents for their support when I needed it the most!

8) What did you do to stay in top physical shape to meet the rigorous demands of being a pilot, scuba diver, strain of zero gravity and a supermom?

Hmm, the question should be what I do, because I still run, swim, bike, and dance to stay in shape. I get bored of doing the same exercises so I try to alternate between them. I also try and eat healthy. I do not drink; my only drinks are water and milk. I also feel I am blessed with good genes and so I never felt nauseous or threw up during my centrifuge high-G experiences or in-air zero-G and high-G experiences! Come to think of it, I did not have those issues during both my pregnancies either! 

9) What do your sons think of your astronaut goals and how you achieved them?  

My boys have grown up seeing me do talks about NASA, Kepler Mission and my astronaut goals. They have attended all my talks in India as they went everywhere with me, so my older one goes, "Mom I know everything in your slides now, I can do the talk too" . They have watched all space movies with me, so today for them it is like "Oh Mom, all she talks about is space" . It’s a "Ghar ki Murgi Daal Barabar" kind of a thing while other kids are in awe when they hear about me! But you will be surprised like me and Dinesh are when we see somewhere what I have been doing and my determination is influencing their little minds and that makes me proud and humbled at the same time! For example, my older one had a class assignment to write about a person who inspires him, and I never expected he would write about his Mom! It was a pleasant surprise and I was touched when I found out he did that. One of the lines in his essay read something like "From my Mom I have learned, no matter how tough things are, you should never give up"! That line said it all!

10) What do you think of SpaceX and would you consider working as an astronaut with SpaceX?

SpaceX is doing amazing work and I wish they had an office here in the Bay Area; I would have loved to work for them! Of course I would love to be an astronaut with SpaceX, but I am sure they have their own fleet of astronauts they might be prepping for the Mars Mission that Mr. Musk is planning. I am a big Elon Musk and SpaceX fan!

11) Do any of the young students in the US ask you about your life in India and tell you their perception of the status of women in India?

No students here don't ask about my life in India, neither do they talk about status of women in India. In fact I mention to them very super briefly about how I grew up in India with this dream and had no direction to follow plus girls weren't encouraged to study that much in those times and how difficult it was. I doubt they understand that though, so I keep it very short. I just say I grew up in India wanting to become an astronaut but didn't get any opportunities to pursue my dream like you guys do

12)   What advice do you give to young people on how to achieve their academic goals?

I tell them to pick an area of interest they love, that they see themselves happily working in after 10, 20, 30 years. Something that will give them happiness and will not become a mundane routine someday. Pick that field that area and then pursue your education in it. Get the highest degree you can, stay focused, have fun and enjoy life but never forget your goal, never lose your focus. Have that right balance and you will never fail. If things get tough, never give up, if with 2 kids, a fulltime job, a house, if I could do it, then you definitely can!!

13)   You stated that “In fact being a Mom, I strive more to give my family the topmost priority and my dreams the last.” What would have happened to your astronaut goals if you had given equal or more preference to your dreams than to your duties?


14)   Given the risks to physical health associated with being in outer space , e.g. Scott Kelly’s vision problems, decrease in bone mass/muscle density , fine motor skills, gut microbiome, etc., would you say that the biggest challenge to long term space exploration may be biological and not just mechanical. If so, what can a budding scientist do help in the success of the Mission to Mars.

The biggest challenge is in fact biological and not mechanical. Our bodies are fragile and not at all designed for space. Vision, bone/muscle density etc. issues come later; the biggest problem is the harmful effects of radiation on human body.

Martian atmosphere is very thin, just 1% of Earth's atmosphere, so there's not much protection from the sun’s harmful radiation. Any mission to Mars or for that matter any deep space mission is going to be well above the 6 months that astronauts have stayed on board the ISS or even more than Scott Kelly's 1 year.

Plus, the ISS is still in the LEO (Lower Earth Orbit), it is still well-protected by the Earth's magnetosphere. Deep space travel for long duration will be outside Earth’s protective LEO, humans have been outside the LEO only to the moon and back, but those have been missions of just a few weeks.

We do not know yet what will happen to human body when we are in space for months and years together. Radiation, microgravity, confinement, lack of fresh air, food and water (everything will be recycled) , there are several factors that need a lot of research and budding scientists can take up such research and help further deep space exploration through their research.

Lot of studies are being run to study the effects of solitary confinement on human psychology. HERA mission where I was the Commander was one such mission. I will also be commanding a simulated Martian mission at the MDRS-Mars Desert Research Station in Utah next spring.

These missions help us understand the impact of confinement on human psychology and what measures need to be taken to avoid the effects of the same on the crew.

Since space like radiation doses and microgravity cannot be simulated here on Earth, hence we had Scott Kelly stay aboard the ISS for a year to see the impacts of those factors on his body. So, this is the kind of research NASA has undertaken to prepare us better for deep space exploration.

15) It is said behind every successful man is a woman; in your case what role did your husband play to be the ‘wind beneath your wings’?

That’s true, my husband has come to support me in a big way after his initial opposition. Yes, my parents and my husband’s support has been very important to me, its motivating when I know they are with me, it helps me go ahead full throttle!

Yes, there are instances where he still tries to hold me back, but after a little convincing he comes around :-) I was away for a month for the HERA Mission and that was the first time I was away from all 3 of them for that long, but we all survived and thanks to Dinesh for letting me go and do my thing! It meant a lot! I will be gone for 2 weeks for an outdoor survival training later this year, for more than 2 weeks for MDRS next spring. Because the boys are with him, I can focus on my work and do what I need to. It is difficult here in the US where we have no household help, we have to do everything from laundry, dishes to cleaning the house. We cannot afford to hire help, which is really expensive here, on a daily basis! So, for any dad to be a single parent when the mom is away is really a huge challenge! And I am proud of the Dad and husband Dinesh is and that is why I say "I can fly higher than the eagle, because you are the wind beneath my wings! " Yes, when your loved ones are with you, behind you, when they've got your back, you fly higher and nothing can keep you from reaching your goals!

MCF readers, to get more information about Anima Patil-Sabale, please visit her website http://www.animapatilsabale.com

Interview by: Shobana Daniell