Susmita Mohanty: Living on a spaceship in Mumbai

Susmita Mohanty: Living on a spaceship in Mumbai

The founder of Earth2Orbit, India's first private space start-up, discusses life as a spaceship designer in Mumbai and her vision to send India's public into orbit
Susmita Mohanty
Susmita astride an All Terrain Vehicle in the Utah desert during a simulated Mars exploration experiment.

For Susmita Mohanty, the founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit -- India's first private space start-up -- the main reason for coming to Mumbai is the same one that made her fall in love with the idea of space exploration: she has restless feet.

"I get bored very easily. The notion of traveling, and going somewhere new always appeals to me. It is part of our human nature to explore," she says, looking across the shifting waters in the bay below her high-rise flat in south Mumbai, which she affectionately calls 'dasRAUMship' (a self-styled portmanteau combining the English and German word for spaceship). After living in San Francisco, Sweden and Strasbourg, Mumbai is now her new base-camp. 

Mohanty, 38, was practically raised in Ahmedabad's Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), where her father worked. But she does not look like a product of a government environment. Instead she channels a seemingly effortless urban-cool vibe and surrounds herself with sleek design and people who dream big. 

Growing up on a sci-fi diet

Sitting on her Ligne Roset lounger, which is almost as enviable as the vintage Danish furniture she has arranged in the spacious flat, Mohanty reminisces about the happy mix of space-related learning materials she was nurtured with as a child. "When I was young, we used to read children's books from Russia, which never failed to feature an astronaut in them as part of Soviet space-race propaganda." As she grew older, she watched "Cosmos", "Star Wars" and other sci-fi serials which ran on television, and read space-related magazines cover-to-cover in the Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre (named after the founder of ISRO) near her home. 

Susmita MohantySusmita at the airlock of a space habitat simulator in Utah."When I was in high school I started looking at ideas for living and working in space. I remember working on things like micro-gravity restraint systems, hygiene systems, and piecemeal architecture leading up to saucer-shaped habitats." She would then get out her dad's portable type writer, put all her ideas on paper, and mail them off to people she knew were working on similar issues across the world. "Sometimes I'd just invent addresses, along the lines of NASA HQ, Washington D.C., USA and hope they'd reach the right person. It actually worked! A few people even wrote back to me, which was very encouraging for a teenager."

Mohanty's knack of getting in touch with the right people changed the course of her life considerably when it was time to go to grad school. "I wanted to go to the International Space University in France, and so was faced with the daunting task of gathering US$35,000 worth of funding in only eight months. I sent off more than 100 letters to foundations around the world, and then contacted seven international bigwigs, including Bill Gates and Carl Sagan to ask for help." Of the 'big 7' she contacted it was Arthur C. Clarke, the author of "2001: A Space Odyssey", who offered to finance her further education.

"One day I got a call from the University. They said, 'Uh, Ms. Mohanty,  Arthur C. Clarke has just sent us a blank cheque for you... what do you want us to do?' He not only paid for most of the course, but we stayed in touch over the years, and he became a lifelong mentor."

Boutique space consulting

Her degree from the International Space University allowed her to join NASA and then Boeing, spending a total of two and a half years at these massive organizations after which her entrepreneurial spirit wanted to break free. "There came a point where I felt I learned all I could from them, and it was time to move on."

Arthur C. ClarkeArthur C. Clarke in 2003 at his office in Sri Lanka, Colombo where he lived from 1956 till his death on March 19, 2008.Mohanty then started up MoonFront, a boutique space consulting firm, which due to its size was able to take on some quirky projects. "In 2001, the space community in Los Angeles, together with space-savvy Hollywood types like Tom Hanks and James Cameron, threw a party at the Playboy Mansion to mark the new millennium. They combined this with a celebration of Stanley Kubrick's "2001:A Space Odyssey". They approached my company to make a short film on Kubrick's masterpiece, which was screened at the party."

She laughs remembering the surreal experience. "Many celebrities were there, but Morgan Freeman was the most amazing -- he is larger than life. Arthur Clarke was there too, he actually appeared in the form of a live-transmitted 3D hologram image! The image was transmitted via an antenna, which the Indian government gave Clarke as a present. He set it up in his home in Sri Lanka, and thanks to that he often delivered video addresses across the world sitting right there at his office in Colombo." (Clarke moved to Colombo to enjoy scuba-diving, a sport that matched his love for weightlessness.) 

After setting up her second company, LIQUIFER, in 2003, which works on advanced concepts for space transportation and habitation, she moved to India in 2008 and opened Earth2Orbit, the country's first space company. As India prepares for its planetary missions, her company hopes to act as a key consultant to the government and private sector companies involved in this effort. 

"There is no space industry in India, and in many ways, we are the first space company. What India has is companies whose primary business is not related to space, but they make parts for ISRO's satellites, rockets and ground stations. There are no Indian companies (unlike the United States and Europe) that focus on space as their core business. We are finding ways to engage with companies who supply ISRO and build synergies so that we can do bigger things together.  Our company also brokers international launches, meaning bringing in foreign satellites to launch on Indian rockets. We are well networked in geographies like the United States, Europe and Japan -- so we are able to serve as an extended business development arm for Antrix, the marketing arm of ISRO." 

Mohanty is also the Space Policy Fellow at the Gateway House, a Mumbai-based foreign policy think tank, through which she hopes to lobby for change in India's space sector, which she feels is overly regulated and dependent on the government.

A new playground for art?

Susmita MohantySusmita in her San Francisco Flat, 2008. While these ambitious projects and staggering acheivements reflect Mohanty's great vision and passion, they do not capture the extent of her boundless space dreams, nor her great skill for cross-pollinating ideas across academic disciplines. Perhaps of all the various projects she has going on, the one that reflects her nature best is the effort to start commercial parabolic flights, in which customers can experience short moments of weightlessness. "We need to democratize access to space. I am dreaming about starting these flights so that everybody in India can experience weightlessness, not just a handful of government-sponsored astronauts paid for by taxpayer funds. There is only one other company in the world that offers commercial zero-gravity flights.  We are thinking of partnering with an Indian airlines company. Opening up such flights to the public could have many purposes, such as allowing pharmaceutical companies to conduct experiments in a near zero-gravity environment." In the same breath she then says, in all earnestness, "but there is so much other stuff we could do up there, we could shoot films like 'Apollo-13' and 'Armageddon'."

Bringing space and art together is a dream which is very near to Mohanty's heart. "I'd like to see space opened to artists who are fascinated with weightlessness," she says. "One of my favorite artists, Kitsou Dubois, is a French dancer and choreographer who has been drawn to micro-gravity. She wanted to understand the human body better, how we perceive movement, balance and verticality. Her shows merge art and science at the same time. I'd love to see more Kitsou Dubois' emerging". Mohanty often collaborates with artists, and is close to the artistic community in Mumbai. The latest example of her love affair with art will be manifested in this year's Venice Architecture Biennale, in which an artistic interpretation of her PhD thesis will be installed in the Austrian pavilion.  

Mumbai as a spaceship

Her fascination with space informs not only her appreciation of art, but also her experience of cities. "Living in Mumbai, I have often been inspired by things I see, especially in the shanties. You know, the challenges we face on spaceships are very similar to those facing cities -- especially in the slums."

This has sown the seed of a project called "Mumbai as a Spaceship", in which she hopes to transform a district of Mumbai in keeping with the tenants of spaceship design. "The challenges you see in the slums, like how to build a 25 square meter home for a family of four, is not that different from the challenges you face having to design a mid-deck of a crew transporter. Hygiene, air-revitalization, recycling, storage... storage is a big issue in space, astronauts live in cramped messy spaces! Privacy, odor and noise -- these are all problems I face as a spaceship designer, and these are faced by people right here in Mumbai living in chawls, slums and nano-houses.

"I really think hyper-dense cities like Tokyo or Mumbai face challenges that are very similar to spaceships. What's more, I think they are reciprocal. I wouldn't draw a line between space and Earth. Space is not removed from Earth, we are actually living on a planet! We live on a spaceship. I hate when people draw a line between the two. To me, there is no line."

Amana is a freelance feature writer based in Mumbai.
Read more about Amana Fontanella-Khan