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Being Astronaut

Former NASA Astronaut Jon McBride in conversation with visitors at Kennedy Space Centre

Former NASA Astronaut Jon McBride in conversation with visitors at Kennedy Space Centre

Circa 1984 : “Oopar se Bharat kaisa dikhta hai aapko? (How does India look from above)?” When the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked India’s first astronaut Rakesh Sharma who went to space on Soyuz T11 spacecraft and spent a week on board the space station, he replied borrowing from Iqbal, “Saare Jahan Se achcha (better than the whole world). I remember watching on Doordarshan the famous conversation he had from space and being as excited and proud as any other Indian. I was part of that generation that jumped on the space exploration dream and grew up admiring Wing Commander (retd.) Rakesh Sharma.

My quarter century of journalistic career never brought me the opportunity to meet a real spaceman adorning the jumpsuit. According to Wikipedia, 549 people have reached the altitude of space till November last. Obviously my chances of meeting one of them always remained slim! Yet the years neither faded my hope or took away my fascination of meeting an astronaut some day.

Circa 2016: “Out of the billions of people on Earth, only a few hundred men and women have ever flown in space.” – says the voice over. Thirty two years on, I am excited to the brim because this is going to be as real as it can get! Strapped to a seat inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Visitor Complex in Space Coast of Florida, I am on a countdown to a shuttle launch experience awaiting all the sights, sounds, heat and emotions of a space mission. The experience has been described as “the next best thing to actual space” by veteran NASA astronauts.

The delight of a journey to the place where only a few daring have flown in before is a reasonable substitute for the G-forces of take-off. With a blasting sound and temperatures rising, we are lifted upwards amid jerks and sways and then within minutes the G-force pushes us back in our seats as we reach 18,000 miles per hour. The temperature drops, there is silence and suddenly there is the unbelievable sensation of weightlessness (zero-gravity). For a few seconds, we are in space! The feeling is so real and the experience indescribable. Some of the visitors shriek in excitement before we are brought back to Earth and made to walk through a red zone to regain our balance.

So after going into the orbit without leaving our seat, the next best thing happens. And this time it is real as we meet space voyager Jon McBride! Immaculately attired in his blue overalls and ready with a smile and a firm handshake, I am finally face-to-face with an astronaut! Jon was a United States Naval officer, a fighter pilot who flew 40 different types of military and civilian aircraft, logged in 8,800 flying hours, went on 1963 Vietnam mission before he chose to travel out beyond the bounds of the Earth. As a NASA astronaut on active duty from 1979 to 1987, Jon McBride flew on both the Columbia Space Shuttle and the Orbiter Challenger.

With such a fulfilling career as his, questions to him jumble up in my mind. I want to hear personal anecdotes, what he ate in space, did he bathe, how cold was it, how did the Earth look…? At 73, his memories are vivid and you cannot miss the element of pride either. “When we pushed the button to the pedal bay to open the door, the joy of gazing down at the Earth was hysterical! I was right in front of Australia,” says the former NASA astronaut who circled the Earth 133 times at 24,000 miles/hour over nine days. “The sunrise and sunset we saw was something most mesmerising and wonderful ever.”

Has he met Rakesh Sharma? “Yes, he is my friend from India,” says Jon, who is likely to meet the Indian astronaut this winter during his India trip. So what is it that astronauts have in common? “We never give up. Perseverance is the key to our living. We don’t believe in ‘I can’t”, he says.

The day at KSC is not complete without walking around the Rocket Garden that completes the story of US space programme, chronicling both the successes and failures. And of course, at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the excitement is all about touching the moon rock encased in a glass box or seeing the actual moon dust on Alan Shepard’s lunar suit.

The American space journey exposes every visitor to the space research and exploration going on and what the future has in store for us.

As John McBride says, “space tourism is going to happen. In future, people will wait to go to Mars for honeymoon!” And I will continue to wait to meet the only Indian astronaut Rakesh Sharma. My childhood dream is rekindled.

(The writer was at Kennedy Space Center, Space Coast-Florida on invitation from VISIT FLORIDA, the official Tourism Marketing Corporation, FL-USA)


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Printable version | May 19, 2022 10:34:38 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/travel/Being-Astronaut/article14587030.ece