- The computer scientist, who has 1,200 career skydives, is among three women chosen by Hera Rising, an initiative that aims to send a woman “high into Earth's atmosphere,” by 2025.
An Indian American computer scientist and experienced skydiver could be the first woman to jump from Earth’s stratosphere. Swati Varshney is one of three explorers chosen by Hera Rising, an initiative that aims to send a woman “high into Earth’s atmosphere,” by 2025, according to space.com.
Also selected along with Varshney are Eliana Rodriquez and Diana Valerín Jiménez. One of them will make the jump, while the other two will stick on the team for ground support.
Varshney has been skydiving since 2010 with 1,200 career skydives. She told Team Blackstar, a group that promotes diversity within skydiving and strengthen ties with communities of color, that she decided to start skydiving after doing a tandem skydive for fun. “After I jumped out of the plane, I felt a sense of stillness wash over me as I hurtled toward the earth,” she said. Her brain “always runs in hyperdrive,” she said, and “this was the first time I truly felt ‘in the moment’ while everything else melted away.” She was “immediately hooked on that feeling, and kept on skydiving to chase it.”
Varshney told Space.com, an independent space news publication, that skydiving is “a lot more similar to my scientific training than I ever thought it would have been in the first place.” She said the Hera Rising was “just another avenue” for her “to pursue this goal of lifelong learning,” adding that it is “a combination” of some of her “most key interests,” and her “passion” for representation and inclusion. “To have all three of those interests in one spot and one project — and to have a single thing to work on instead of my brain split in three different directions — it’s really incredible.”
Talking about skydiving, Varshney loves that “there’s always something new to learn in skydiving, whether it’s a more advanced skill, a different way to fly, or a loftier goal to achieve.” Skydiving will “never bore” her, she told Team Blackstar. She also loves that it makes her use her “brain and body together; it’s a great physical outlet for my mental energy.”
However, she recalled how her parents weren’t thrilled when she started skydiving. “After they were reassured that safety was my number one priority, and that skydiving was indeed number two to school and my career, they were more amenable to the idea,” she told Team Blackstar. “Now, they are supportive and appreciate that it makes me so happy.”
So far, her biggest challenge was competing in Vertical Formation Skydiving (VFS). “I always thought I couldn’t compete because I wasn’t a super ninja flyer,” she told Team Blackstar. Then she realized she didn’t need to be, “because there are competitions in many disciplines at every skill level.” She described it as “a hard decision to put learning head-down on the backburner this past year while I focused back- and sit-flying for 2-way VFS Intermediate for U.S. Indoor Nationals.” Sometimes she felt like she was “stunting her own progress to chase a side goal. She realized that she’s “a much stronger freeflyer now because of VFS training, which will make learning new skills so much easier in the future.”
As for the scariest thing about the sport, she says its all the “ill-fitting student gear and rental equipment that my instructors put me in. I can hardly believe I jumped out of an airplane with it on. Part of me is glad I didn’t know any better at the time, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be a skydiver today. I’m beyond happy to have safe gear that fits me now.”
Varshney has a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master of philosophy in microtechnology and nanotechnology enterprise from the University of Cambridge, and a bachelor of science in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University. Her research expertise includes biomaterials, polymer chemistry, and 3D printing. While at MIT, she worked on creating flexible body armor based on fish-scale biomechanics alongside the MIT Skydiving Club.
Space.com notes that the “cold and space-like conditions in the stratosphere are tough,” that planning for a jump “requires the deep pockets of militaries or by well-heeled companies.” Therefore, women and minorities in particular have barriers to skydiving due to the training time involved, the expense of equipment and airplane time, and the difficulty of accessing the sport in many countries,” it adds.
Meanwhile, this jump is backed by a fundraising campaign by Rising United, a non-profit educational charity focused on female empowerment. It is aiming to raise $750,000 on Kickstarter to underwrite the Phase 1 of the program. That phase will finance items such as spacesuit and mission design, the educational curriculum, and marketing and social media to bring Hera to a wide audience.