Sometimes, you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are.
April 3rd, 1984 is a date gloriously etched in history as the day when the first Indian cosmonaut took off for an unforgettable journey miles above the Earth’s surface. Thirty three years later, Rakesh Sharma marked his touchdown in Manipal for a fireside chat hosted by The Think Tank, enlightening his audience with an account of his expedition to space.
Not only is he the first Indian to go in space, he is also the only Indian resident till date to have done so. A man of reputed honor and eloquence, Rakesh Sharma engaged in a brief interview with us to share a slice of his extraordinary experience.
MTTN: Thousands of people aspire to be astronauts as kids. Is it really as appealing as it looks like?
Rakesh Sharma: A lot depends on what you want to achieve. If you merely want to experience it and see the earth from space, the effort will not be worth it. Space tourism could be your option there. However, if you wish to pursue it as a career and do something to contribute towards it, then it begs the next question: what is it that excites you in that domain? There are several verticals even within this broad one. You could help in creating a planned habitation in space where living beings can survive, or you could work as an environmental engineer or builder. Either way, you’ve got to innovate and discover new ways of doing things, taking into account what your goal is. It really depends what you want to do.
MTTN: Speaking of space travel for excursion, do you think it will soon be a possibility for the masses?
Rakesh Sharma: Oh yes, absolutely. In your own generation, within your lifetime, space tourism will certainly be a possibility. It will be incorporated into what civil aviation is today, and you’ll be able to buy a ticket for a journey into space. I’d say about 30 years from now will mark the initiation of space tourism.
MTTN: What was more fearsome- to fly a MIG, or the flight into space?
Rakesh Sharma: The former. The flying into space bit wasn’t all that taxing because there is nothing in your control; you hand over your life to the computer and hope that it works alright, and that there is no glitch in the software. I would say you have the option to be rather detached, which is what I was. Again, it depends a lot on your outlook.
MTTN: You went into space at a time when the U.S.S.R. and U.S. were at their peak in advancements in space technology. Did you ever imagine that ISRO would someday follow trail?
Rakesh Sharma: Well, I knew that ISRO had started venturing into this activity. Of course, I don’t mean manned space programs; that was nowhere on the horizon. However, it was a matter of time because the expected aim was different and I did not project so far into the future as to what they would do next. In fact, they’ve been trying to carry out a manned space program for the last 10 years, but nothing concrete has happened yet. ISRO has a different vision statement than those countries, so I don’t really know.
MTTN: What is the one thing that makes you miss space on earth and earth in space?
Rakesh Sharma: What makes me miss space on earth? The filth. I’m not saying that there is no space debris, but it certainly hasn’t reached critical mass yet. The way our planet is being destroyed makes me feel bad because this truly is a beautiful place. It is the only place we have which can sustain life, as far as I know, and we’re doing a great job at destroying it. That’s what I miss about space while on Earth, and while I was in space, I realized the value of earth. That environment up there is not a very friendly one, and needs getting acclimatized to. It’s all the more the reason to look after the great place that we have, where we were born and where we hope our future generations would continue to live, provided we don’t destroy it.
The quintessence of breaking limits past the sky into the space beyond, Rakesh Sharma made a remarkable dent on the world by making India the 14th nation to send a man into outer space. He was awarded the honor of Hero of the Soviet Union and the Ashoka Chakra for his achievements, and retired from the Indian Air Force with the rank of Wing Commander.
–As told to Tejal Khullar for MTTN