Wing commander Rakesh Sharma takes a walk down memory lane to the day he blasted off to space, becoming the first Indian to do so. Pankaja Srinivasan reports

Wing Commander (Retd) Rakesh Sharma, recipient of the Ashoka Chakra, fobs off any attempt to glorify him. When I tell him that my family and friends were beside themselves with excitement about my interview with him, he just smiles and says a polite ‘thank you'.

Perhaps I look disappointed, so he relents and says, “I don't mean to burst your bubble. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to have gone into space. But, it could have been anyone. It is like a lottery, meri lag gayi (I got lucky).”

A place in history

Of course, the wing commander is being modest. The first Indian to go to space is a sobriquet not many enjoy. “I am the 128th person to have done that,” he says.

“But, the first Indian,” I insist, and he smiles again. Ace test-pilots of the Indian Air Force were put through a rigorous selection and training process, both in the country and in the erstwhile Soviet Union before he was chosen.

Twenty six years ago in 1984, on this day the then Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma took off from a remote place called Baikonur, now in Kazakhstan, from the world's first and largest operational space launch facility.

He was on Soyuz T 11 spacecraft along with two other Soviet cosmonauts as part of a joint programme between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and the Soviet Intercosmos space programme. He spent the next seven days, 21 hours and 40 minutes, on board the space station, Salyut 7. Sharma laughs about how he often has to break the disappointing news to people who think he went to the moon! Obviously, they were very young when he went into space. "It just proves my point that it makes more sense to move on rather than dwell on something that happened so many years ago," he smiles.

Trained for the job

“So much had already been done in space before that, it had all been documented and there were no real surprises in store for us,” says Sharma, when probed about what his feelings were. Wasn't there anxiety, fear of the unknown…? “As pilots in the Indian Air Force, we have faced far more dangerous situations and lived to tell the tale,” he states.

Incidentally, Rakesh Sharma always wanted to be a pilot. “Since I was six years old, and a cousin in the Air Force took me around and showed me aeroplanes, their cockpits, etc. If you end up doing what you are passionate about, the journey is so easy,” he says.

And, the space trip was the cherry on top. Of course, jokes Sharma, he wishes he had more time to peer out of the window into space. “Every minute in space was accounted for,” he says and adds that he would love to return there, but this time as a passenger not a crew member!

When Rakesh Sharma returned to earth, it was to celebrity status. Tours, lectures, talks and interviews awaited him. Being a public figure was not something he enjoyed too much. He longed for the anonymity of a squadron pilot. “But, I did what anyone else representing their country would do— I put my best foot forward,” he says. He put on his flying boots once again when he was posted to an operational fighter squadron. He was later absorbed by HAL in Bangalore, where he served as a chief test pilot. He was associated with the evolution of the LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) now called Tejas.

Asked if he was in anyway involved in the Indian space programme, he answers, “Only in an advisory capacity”. There are many milestones to be reached before we can go ahead, he says, and hopes the programme will evolve into a sound and successful one.

Peace unto space

With so much happening in deep space exploration and the talk of colonising the moon, and so on, Rakesh Sharma has one underlying concern.

“I hope we don't export conflict from this planet into the others. None of the paradigms that define us here on earth— the borders, the parochialism, the divide, should mar our presence in space”.

When he talks to young people, he reiterates the fragility of our planet. He says how it looks less blue and greyer than it should from space. Forests are disappearing, water sources are drying up. Of course, he adds, “You don't have to go into space to know that. It is visible to us right here on earth.”

Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma now lives a quiet life with his wife Madhu in Coonoor, not too far from where another hero Field Marshal Manekshaw lived.

Just before I leave I ask him about his famous line to Mrs Indira Gandhi when she asked him how India looked from up there and he said ‘saare jahan se achcha'.

“That is not my line, it is Iqbal's” he laughs. And, he shares another bit of personal information. “There is one person who sends me three cards every year. One on New Year's, one for my birthday and the third that marks the anniversary of my flight into space. He is a paan wallah in Ahmedabad.”