Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian cosmonaut to go into space, gives us a glimpse of his journey on the 30th anniversary of the Indo—Russian space mission.
Many years ago in a school in Ooty, on a sunny afternoon in April, the teacher told our class that he had exciting news. “Rakesh Sharma is now India’s first cosmonaut.” He went on, “Do you know who were selected for the space programme? Rakesh Sharma and Ravish Malhotra.” The two names stuck.
Thirty years ago, on April 2, Rakesh Sharma made history. Since that joint Russian-Indian space flight that marked a milestone in the Indian space programme, a dream was fulfilled — of meeting the great man.
The view from his bungalow perched on top of a mountain in the Nilgiris is magnificent. One immediately recalls the words Rakesh Sharma uttered when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked him how India appeared from where he was. “Saare Jahan Se Achchaa,” was his instant reply.
Training for the space crew was at the centre in Star City, located 70 km out of Moscow. He trained for 18 months here for the nearly historic eight-day space flight. There was a lot to learn in the fields of bio-medicine, earth resources and material sciences, ground subjects, and then plenty of work in the simulator practising procedures for the launch such as docking with the lab in space, undocking and re-entry. There were also important survival techniques to practise in case of any problem. As all this was taught in Russian, he had to learn the language first! He emerged well-trained, as the sequences were practised repeatedly.
Experiments in space
First there was bio-medicine, where scientists wanted to study how the human heart functions in a zero gravity environment and how your sensory balancing mechanism gets affected because in space, you are floating and your head is moving all the time. The crew constantly kept mapping changes, if any. Mr. Sharma also photographed the entire Indian landmass using special cameras aboard the lab and sent these remote-sensing images back. There were also experiments like attempting to grow a crystal of silver and germanium in space. The structure of a crystal is perfect if grown in space.
An experiment was selected by the Indian side to generate data. The task was to look at yoga and space training. Space sickness is a problem which can strike at any time. The idea was to find out whether yoga could be used to train space crew. Three months before the launch, he stopped training according to the Soviet system and started practising yoga, while the two Russians in the crew continued with the Soviet system. Then, the medical data was compared before landing, during flight and after touchdown, and there was no difference. But it was a system that showed promise.
In space, blood collects in your head, the tongue swells up and the balancing sensory mechanism in the middle ear becomes over-sensitive, and you feel feverish. Head movements can cause nausea because the balancing mechanism is super-sensitive.
“Managing water is a problem especially if it spills. Anything that spills becomes a liquid sphere and floats around. And with lots of electronic equipment in the space lab, water can cause damage. So, the most efficient way to tackle those spills was to stand around that blob of water, put your mouth to it and suck it up.”
Space is a great place. The view is fantastic. But it is a tough place to work in, he says. In the days ahead, the technological challenge before humans will be to set up settlements on the Moon or Mars. “Our civilisation is ready to set out on such space journeys. The next generation is going to witness some spectacular events as far as space exploration is concerned.”
Speaking to the Prime Minister
“It was an exciting time,” he says with a laugh. “After all, you don’t get to speak to the Prime Minister every day. That conversation I had with Mrs. Gandhi was extraordinary and I was a very proud Indian. Saare Jahan Se Acchcha.”
Word of the wise
“Young people must be better informed about careers available in this area,” he says. When he visits schools or meets children, he finds that they need to get more information. “You must take the trouble to grab any opportunity that comes your way.”
Peek into the past
“I was born in Patiala and educated in Hyderabad. I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” he says. “When I was a kid, the Indian Air Force (IAF) got its first jet fighter, the Vampire. I used to hear it fly overhead. The training establishment was at Hakimpet, and the Vampire used to fly there. I would cycle some 10-15 km from my home to the base, stand outside the fence and watch it fly. I was pretty hooked to this.”
“In class, if I worked hard, I used to be in the top five. I was quite fond of the outdoors. I played a lot of cricket, making it to the all-Indian inter-university team. After school, I joined the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Khadakwasla, Pune. Then I opted for the IAF. There was some professional training and gliding, and I started flight training after that. After three years in the NDA and 18 months of flight training, I got commissioned as a fighter pilot. My first operational aircraft was the MiG-21. I took part in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. After this I was selected for test pilot training. I was a test pilot for 11 years during which I was selected for space flight training.”
India had close ties with Russia. And in the space programme with India, Russia was certain it would be able to train test pilots because they are exposed to a level of technology that is a notch higher than space technology.
I was very privileged to have got that chance (going to space).