She wanted to pursue a career in percussion. Then one day during the pandemic, she stumbled across a course on astronautics. Since then, there has been no looking back.
Meet Amrutaa Vibho, a 20-year-old international student of physics at Norwich University. A researcher and a coder, she has joined her university’s cadet program as a probationary member in the U.S. Marine Corps, aiming to be an Artemis-generation NASA astronaut, as well as a test helicopter pilot of the AH-1 Supercobra. Any success will make her the first Indian to take the test pilot route in becoming a NASA astronaut.
“I pursue a career that is so far an uphill battle,” Vibho says.
In a chat with Vermont News & Media, Vibho explains the journey that she's embarking on, expresses her feelings in scripting history, and discusses her idols and inspirations.
Q: You're a Norwich University Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet. How did it all begin?
A: I had initially aimed to pursue a career in cybersecurity and intelligence. During COVID, when my computer science exam was postponed and it demotivated my spirit, I began pursuing online courses and found MIT’s course on Introduction to Astronautics and Human Spaceflight. During this period, I was selected for a research project at the University of Chicago. This was self-discovery for me, as I found my love for astrophysics and was beginning to feel overwhelmed by how interesting I found every subject that had to do with space.
A cadet from the United States Air Force Academy introduced me to the concept of becoming a test pilot. I couldn’t apply to the USAFA or U.S. Naval Academy due to citizenship issues. It was at that time that I was inspired by USMC Major and helicopter combat pilot Jasmin Moghbelli, who enlisted in the USMC ROTC as a college student and went to the corps. Not only did this give me hope, but it gave me a way. I researched for ROTC universities that allow internationals, and Norwich University came to my rescue.
Q: What do you expect from this program?
A: The program allows me to obtain a physics degree with my chosen concentration area of astrophysics, while allowing me to attend the Military Academy and train to join the USMC after graduation. Though recruitment remains complicated for me, this is an opportunity to unleash my love for flying, space and astrophysics. I am expecting that Norwich will prepare me for concrete research, not only for asking good questions but in devising good methods for answering them, too. I also look forward to receiving instruction on how to be mentally agile and sharp on field and in air.
Q: How does it feel that you might make history for India?
A: This fact keeps me aspiring, excited and under pressure. I cannot wait to know what I’m up against. This gives me a sense of how huge this is and the scale of the goal that my efforts will amount to. That I could create history and that this might work is what keeps me going. Sometimes I desperately wish that Kalpana had been here. Only she would be able to comprehend the challenges that this goal brings. (Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian-born woman to go to space in 1997; six years later, she died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster.)
I do want to honor my country, but I also want to bring hope and broaden the scope for (a hundred thousand people) who cease to think of it beyond a dream or a long shot. If it’s just as hard for the person who follows this path after me, there’s no point to my pursuit.
Q: Has your family been supportive of you?
A: Supportive throughout but aware of the risks. They have watched me through accomplishments and encouraged me to be humble. It is because of their warmth and understanding that I have been able to endure the curveballs of such an ambition.
Q: Any discouraging comments that you have heard? What has been your reply?
A: Some have told me that this trajectory pays less than corporate, and it would take a lifetime to achieve, and I could easily take a better corporate job/airline pilot job or aerospace job with my credentials. I say, I am in it for the science and a life larger than my being.
Q: Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
A: In five years, hopefully Quantico and Naval Aviation school, alongside graduation and helicopter assignment. By that time, military deputation is what I’ll be aiming for, essentially United States Naval Test Pilot School and possibly Naval Grad School.
Q: You spoke about idolizing Dr. Kalpana Chawla, the only Indian NASA astronaut to date. What are some of her traits that you wish to develop in yourself?
A: When I was 6, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting — where my father was then posted — set out to give a tribute to Dr. Chawla by publishing her biography. When they managed to reach the family for an interview, Kalpana’s mother took a piece of paper and scribbled her wishes for Kalpana. I found that paper in my dad’s home office, and that was the first time that I was exposed to the idea that there lay something beyond the endless sky. Kalpana has been close to my heart ever since. In this long, arduous pursuit, I feel her presence and am inspired by the milestones she accomplished. From her, I wish to embody simplicity, humility, undying curiosity amidst chaos, aiming for ambition and having firm faith in one’s abilities.
Q: Which other world personalities do you look up to?
A: I’ve been idolizing former U.S. President Barack Obama after his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I admire his ability to put forth arguments. His firm belief in his ideals and his faith in the future gives me hope. On similar grounds, I look up to Swami Vivekananda. As someone who is aiming to achieve a global ambition, his philosophies form the fabric of my belief system.