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Rakesh Sharma, the first and only Indian in space, wants to go back as a tourist

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The veteran Indian Air Force fighter pilot says he is excited about PM Modi’s announcement of plans to launch a desi crewed mission by 2022.

Bengaluru: India’s first man in space can’t wait to have company. Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma (retd), who flew into record books aboard a Russian mission in 1984, said he was excited about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of plans to send a crewed Indian mission to space by 2022.

“I was feeling lonely as I was the only Indian to have been to space. Now I will have somebody to share this responsibility,” he said.

Sharma, who is now 69 and living a quiet retired life amid the beautiful Nilgiris, said he was “very proud” of the fact that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was making brilliant breakthroughs in space technology.

It has been 57 years since the first human entered space — Yuri Gagarin of the erstwhile USSR — and more than 34 years since Sharma did. Over the years, the US and China have conducted successful crewed spaceflights, but India is yet to.

Also read: Modi says ISRO eyeing human spaceflight in three years. The claim may not be far off

Sharma said it was never too late to attempt a mission this complex.

“The point of this (the ISRO mission) is that we have to do it by ourselves, as, like most cutting-edge technologies, this is not available off the shelf,” he said.

“You have to go find the money, the brain, the dedication to do it yourself. ISRO has reached the maturity where, from a technology standpoint, it is able to do this today. The government has challenged them (ISRO) and made funds available to take it to the next level,” he added.

“He (Modi) was alluding to the fact that we had to take a ride on somebody else’s technology to be launched from some other cosmodrome. It is not similar to being launched from you own country, with your own technology and with the efforts of your own scientists. There is a difference don’t you think?”

That proud moment

Sharma, the 125th human to visit space, also had an illustrious career as an Indian Air force (IAF) fighter pilot. Aged just 23, he flew 21 missions during the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

Talking about his space experience, Sharma said it felt very special to carry the Tricolour with him aboard the Soyuz T-11.

The flight was the result of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s suggestion of a joint Indo-Soviet space mission in 1980. The Indian Air Force (IAF) was asked to shortlist two candidates (one of them as back-up), and Sharma and fellow Wing Commander Ravish Malhotra were picked from a list of 50 fighter pilots.

A gruelling training programme followed to prepare the pilots for the zero-gravity life. One of the tests involved the duo being locked up in a room with artificial lights for three days to gauge signs of ‘latent claustrophobia’.

Also read: Modi’s space dream: India still doesn’t know the difference between tech & science

After they passed this test, the two were sent to a high-security cosmonaut training facility in Moscow called Star City for the final leg of the exercise. They had to learn Russian, the language most instructions were in, and undergo Olympics-style training for endurance, speed, strength and adaptability.

Once the training was completed, Sharma was chosen for the flight, which took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is now Kazakhstan on 2 April, 1984.

The frenzy that greeted him on his return is still a fresh memory for Sharma, as are the questions that came his way. Someone asked him if he saw God, and when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought to know how India looked from space, Sharma famously replied, Saare Jahaan Se Accha.

As a Russian astronaut is known as a cosmonaut, so their Indian colleagues will be referred to as ‘vyomanauts’ (vyom is Sanskrit for space). Sharma said he was envious of the current generation as they had the “chance to be agents of change and part of momentous changes”.

Asked if technological advancements had made training for the newer generation of astronauts easier, Sharma said the essence of the lesson remained the same.

“What has not changed very much is the challenge to adapt to zero gravity and the need to learn on the job,” he added.

‘No competition, just cooperation’

Speaking of India’s proposed space mission, which is currently being referred to as ‘Gaganyaan’, Sharma had a word of advice, even as he celebrated India’s approach to space exploration.

“Here is an opportunity to show that we can do it, do it well and our efforts should be to contribute to whatever end, and let that end be cooperative, not competitive, because competition has got us into conflicts,” he added.

“We have never been in the job of competing with other nations. Had we done that, we would never have run the space programme the way we have done today. What the US and the former Soviet Union did were ideological races, there was very little science out there,” he added.

“We did not follow them and did our own thing. We need to do it well and perhaps if we are able to forge a consensus in cooperative ventures, indicators are there that we can start colonising outer space. But it needs to be a collaborative effort,” Sharma said.

As the interview came to a close, ThePrint asked Sharma the obvious question: Did he want to go back to space, may be onboard the Gaganyaan?

“Of course. Why not?” he replied. “I would like to back as a tourist because, the last time around, I was too busy working and unable to take in the beauty. I would like to go back as a space tourist,” he added with a laugh.

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