Of Heavenly Bodies and Other People: A Fireside Chat With Rakesh Sharma

The hall was set, dignitaries and audience seated and the stage lights lit as the entirety of Manipal University awaited Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma’s insightful Fireside chat; organised by The Think Tank, and presented by Indian Oil Propel. An evening that was eagerly anticipated by space and science enthusiasts alike, people showed up in large numbers to see the first man in space talk about his journey to the stars.

What began as a childhood infatuation turned out to be the biggest turning point in Rakesh Sharma’s life; as much to the dismay of his parents and luckily to the nation, his love for aviation never came to an end, instead grew exponentially. Who would have imagined that a little boy drawn towards aircrafts after hearing a majestic Vampire fly over him would bring the breaths of a nation to a standstill and focus their attention towards a man who was now orbiting in space?

 

Talking about his education at the National Defense Academy, he shared his common fear for Mathematics and the hurdles it posed before him and his eagerness to maneuver his first aircraft and join the Indian Air Force. He credits a lot of his success to the Academy for the physical training he received and mental resilience it instilled in him, both of which played key roles in making him the best fit for the mission.

For a person who’s flown supersonic fighter jets such as the MiG 21, been a part of various cross-border operations, and subsequently the first Indian to voyager into space; he is rather apprehensive of flying aboard commercial jets hoping the pilots know their job!
The Russians had approached the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to launch a joint mission to space but had been turned down by ISRO several times. This time she decided to offer the Indian Air Force a chance, and rest, as they say, is history.


After a gruesome and rigorous selection process, Rakesh Sharma and Ravish Malhotra were sent to Star City to begin with a yearlong training which also involved learning Russian and adapting to their culture.
One of the most cherished moments according to him were in Star City and included getting to share the same space as that of many legends such as playing tennis with Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space who also happened to mentor him.
Reiterating his description of the Indian subcontinent from space; “Saare Jahan Se Acha” he emphasized on the truly majestic beauty of India from the heavens above and if given an opportunity again how he’d love to be a space tourist this time, sticking his nose out of the window, marveling at the beautiful creations without the burden of having to work! Interestingly, he exclaimed that even if any of the African heads of state would have asked him the same question his reply would have been unchanged. For a man who’s traveled beyond the clutches of gravity, geopolitical boundaries make little sense.
The question-answer segment concluded with Rakesh Sharma pointing out the biggest flaw in India’s space aspirations, a lack of vision. Technology, into which huge amounts of resources had been invested sits idle until they are put to use along with a defined path.

 

A man of such great stature and towering achievements, he spends his life far from the paparazzi and when asked humbly claims that he was never trained to handle all of it! “I feel guilty of being the only person from India to be in space and yearn the opportunity of sharing my experience with all those who never got to witness the earth from such a distance.” The night came to an end with the attendees leaving in awe of Rakesh Sharma as they witnessed from a very close distance the attributes and characteristics which very rightly made him fit to be the first Indian in space.

– Abhishek Mishra for  MTTN

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