Published: 18th August 2021
In 2019, Vijay Sethupathi helped this Theni girl become an astronaut. Now, she's raising funds to undergo pilot training
Udhaya Keerthika is the daughter of a billboard painter who's one step closer to jetting off into space. Here's her inspiring story
"Fly me to the Moon!" Years after Sinatra sang this, Udhaya Keerthika said this to her father. She was two, at the time. "The driver who was set to take you to the Moon isn't well. He will take you once he gets better," responded her father, who paints billboards for a living. Little did he know that his child would grow up to actually aim for the stars, the Moon and everything celestial.
Years later, in 2019, she graduated with a degree in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering from Kharkiv National Air Force University in Ukraine. Right after coming home, she got accepted to the Analog Astronaut Training Center and the Military Institution of Aviation Medicine, Poland, for astronaut training. But this was obviously not an easy deal for Keerthika. "I studied in a Tamil-medium government school throughout. I did not speak English quite well. My parents were also not financially sound enough to pay for this training," she says. And that's when actor Vijay Sethupathi came to her rescue. He donated `8 lakh that funded her astronaut training.
Keerthika is 23 today and quite close to making her dreams come true. She is now raising funds to go to Canada and pursue her pilot training at Harv's Air Academy. "Since my school days, I had been fascinated by space. I would read everything about Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams. We did not have an internet connection or even a computer in our house for a very long time. But I would find magazines and newspapers and save the articles," says Keerthika. In 2012 and 2014, during her classes X and XII respectively, Keerthika went on to win essay writing competitions organised by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). "This gave me a chance to interact with scientists and this fuelled my space dream. Following this, I went to Ukraine to study," she says.
The next phase was the most exciting one in her life — the few months that she spent in Poland. "This was challenging too. I underwent training there to survive on both the Moon and Mars. I was also subject to centrifugal training for almost 14 days, where I performed a series of experiments. It is quite isolating and people are prone to fall into depression in these cells," she says. Human centrifuges are exceptionally large centrifuges that test the reactions and tolerance of pilots and astronauts to acceleration above those experienced in Earth's gravity. "They do not generally let civilians undergo this. I was the first Indian to finish that training there," she says.
Now that she is set to go to Canada, money stands as a hurdle between her and her dreams once again. However, she hasn't lost hope. "When I feel dejected, I remember the times when I've spoken in schools in rural Tamil Nadu and little girls looked up to me. India has still not sent a man into space and I hope to be part of that mission someday. I also want to be a role model for these girls and help them in every way that I can to achieve their dreams," she says.
You can contribute to her cause here: https://milaap.org/fundraisers/support-d-udhayakeerthika