While most of us think “space, the final frontier” is just a line Star Trek fanatics live by, for Dr. Susmita Mohanty (the Dr. makes her scary, but we’ve learned she’s unlike any space researcher we’ve ever seen on the telly!) these are words she tries to make a reality, everyday. So much so that in her Katalyst collaboration Space Station Mumbai, she got Kulture Shop artistAviral Saxena imagining Mumbai as a inter-stellar port!
Susmita spent her formative years in Ahmedabad, where her dad worked with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Naturally, she grew up on a steady diet of sci-fi, from Russian children’s books that naturally featured cosmonaut stories promoting the Russian space-race propaganda, moving on to sci-fi serials like Cosmos (the original 1980 TV show) and Star Trek and movies such as Star Wars. As a teenager she started researching living and working in space, and would often borrow her dad’s old typewriter to send idea-filled letters to people working on similar issues, addressed along the lines of NASA HQ, Washington DC, USA. Sometimes, those addresses worked. She even impressed Arthur C. Clark so much he funded her education at the International Space University (France) and mentored her till his death in 2008.
Susmita’s degree from the Space University helped her work with NASA and then Boeing, where, after 2.5 years, partly to explore her entrepreneurial side, but also, partly believing in the democratization of 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… Opening up such flights to the public sector could have many purposes, such as allowing pharmaceutical companies to conduct experiments in a near zero-gravity environment."
Susmita chats with us about her interest in space design
Her first company was MoonFront, a boutique space agency that took on varied jobs, including making a short film in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odessey for a party the Los Angeles space community threw at the Playboy Mansion with Hollywood A-listers such as Tom Hanks, James Cameron and Morgan Freeman, to celebrate the year and the film. Arthur C. Clark made an appearance in the form of a 3D hologram image live-transmitted via satellite. After MoonFront, she started Liquifer in 2003 which works on advance concepts of space transport and habitation. Returning to India in 2008, she set up Earth2Orbit, India’s first space start-up, that will not only look at the previously mentioned zero-gravity flights but work with the Indian government as it prepares for inter-planetary missions.
Incredibly shot futuristic films Susmita swears by
Growing up in Ahmedabad, Susmita had a constant supply of brilliant architects, scientists, and people doing textile research, which worked to widen her world immensely. “What I had to myself was a bicycle and a whole bunch of pens to draw with. I would sneak into libraries in my neighborhood: The Indian Institute of Management, The School of Architecture (CEPT), Physical Research Lab, and so on. It was perfect for a kid like me who was always curious about everything. The multiple interests of her childhood created an affinity for art and design within her. She looks forward to bringing space and art together in a meaningful way and has many friends within the artistic community in Mumbai. Recently, an artistic version of her PhD thesis was installed at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale’s Austrian Pavillion. Some of Susmita’s favorite space films are known not only for their exciting story but the incredibly artistic way they’ve been styled and shot.
The Spacecraft Designer and the Artist - Aviral and Susmita enjoy a cuppa at the KS studio!
Since her return to India in 2008, Susmita’s Immersed herself in Mumbai. I think Bombay in very many ways resembles a spaceship. If you look at the human density, the kind of psychological and sociological stresses people go through to survive in Bombay; and everything – the odour, the noise, the lack of privacy, storage – all these are problems I face as a spaceship designer, and these are faced by people right here in Mumbai living in chawls, slums and nano-houses!”