Hashima Hasan was a seven-year-old when Russia’s Sputnik streaked across the Lucknow sky early one morning in October 1957. Earlier, news had been flashed in a newspaper that satellite would pass over the city at 5.30am. Hasan’s maternal grandmother gathered everyone in the house to see it go by — “it was very exciting,” she says.
While elsewhere in the world the launch of the world’s first artificial earth satellite is said to have kick off the “space race” in the world, it made the little girl curious about space.
“I had no idea what it was,” she recalls, adding that, however, she thought, “I have to do something in space.” Easier thought than done. For, those were different days.
Hasan’s school did not offer maths. So, for a month after her senior Cambridge (equivalent to Class 10) in 1964, Hasan taught herself her favourite subject which she was going to pursue at the intermediate level.
Finally, Hasan received her BSc (PCM) from Lucknow University, being part of what was “quite a record” with 12 women in that course. She followed it up with an MSc at Aligarh and a PhD from Oxford in theoretical nuclear physics.
After stints at Pune University and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in India, she moved to the United States with her husband after marriage. They came back to India after some time and were based in Bombay
In 1994 when she got into US space agency NASA, again she was a break from tradition: Around the time, one newspaper called NASA “male, pale and stale”. Then, “I was the only one not white. When I joined in astrophysics, I don’t think there was even a female civil servant” over there, says Hasan, now James Webb space telescope programme scientist and the education and public outreach lead for astrophysics. (The JWST, due for launch in 2018, is expected to go looking for the first galaxies created in the early universe, “connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way Galaxy.”)
“Now, there are a lot of women at the headquarters,” says Hasan, now a US citizen, adding “... if you have a dream follow it. Work hard at it.”