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First Indian in space's message to UAE astronaut Hazza Al Mansoori

First Indian in spaces message to UAE astronaut Hazza Al Mansoori

Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian in space, on life after the 1984 mission and what Hazza Al Mansoori, UAE's first astronaut who is headed to the ISS, potentially has in store


Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Fri 20 Sep 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Sun 29 Sep 2019, 1:12 PM

1984 is a year Indians are not likely to forget for a variety of reasons. Rakesh Sharma is one of them. A test pilot for the Indian Air Force, Sharma became the first Indian to travel to outer space. This feat, which Sharma so casually speaks of as a "job" that a "professional" was tasked with, not only taught Indians to dream, but gave the Indian space programme an iconic moment. When asked by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi how India looked from up there, he remarked, "Saare jahaan se achcha" (It's best in the world.), alluding to the famous patriotic song by Iqbal. Today, as the UAE gears up for one such moment with the propsect of having its first astronaut Hazza Al Mansoori in outer space, WKND spoke to Rakesh Sharma to understand what the distinction of "being the first" really means and the world of possibilities that space explorations open up for the rest of humanity. Edited excerpts:
What was the burden of expectations you were carrying during the 1984 mission?
There is always a fair amount of excitement and anticipation because the experience is so out of the ordinary... something that every aviator aspires for. The other thing was that it was totally unexpected because our country did not have a manned space programme. From a professional standpoint, one hoped that everything would go well - not just the safety aspect but from the point of view of the mission objective. It was an important mission, and I was a professional representing not just the country, but the Indian Air Force and the flying community.
Reams have been written about the gruelling physical preparations you had to undergo. What did the mental preparation entail?
I'd say the fact that I had been a test pilot for about 10 years by that time, and quite used to doing stuff that had never been done before. So, as far as mental conditioning was concerned, it was just another challenging mission. I guess it made it all the more exciting.
You describe the 72 hours when you were quarantined as being relaxing. No books, no television, no interaction. How could it not have been a gruelling process?
It wasn't gruelling. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The context was just before that I was really busy completing a few reports and had to travel quite a bit. So, I was looking forward to it. It was a kind of vacation (laughs).
What were some of the most awkward questions you found yourself answering upon your return?
Well, the most difficult question was, "Sir, how was it?". It was such an open-ended question. Which part of the mission do you describe? The expanse was so rich to answer that question that one would have to resort to clichés like "awesome" and "brilliant". The problem with simple questions which are asked over and over again is that you don't want to sound like a broken record.
You were also asked if you saw god.
(Laughs) These questions came from religious people who were convinced that god lived above the clouds. I did not want to trivialise anybody's faith. This question was put to another great explorer, who said, "If you go to space to look for god, then you have some other kind of problem."
As an astronaut, space travel is a feat. As a person, what does it change?
Time and time again, I've asked myself why I was given the chance to do something very few people on the planet have been able to do. That's my good fortune. I looked at it as a job that was given to somebody who was in military aviation. I had to ensure it was done without any glitches. In that sense, it was professionally satisfying, but beyond that, it has not affected me at all. I went back to my old career of test flying. After retirement, today, I remain fulfilled and content with the fact that I was a part of cutting-edge work.
You are often labelled the "reluctant space hero" because you like to keep a low profile. Does that kind of branding by the media do justice to you?
I don't think anybody who is branded is happy about it because it slots you. It probably works for people in the entertainment industry because it puts them in everybody's face. It's like oxygen for them. For professionals, the hype doesn't work. I could either have looked at myself as the first Indian in space or 128th from the world.
There is a disconnect between how you perceive your space travel and how others see it. Where is the key difference between the two?
I think the key difference is that you are involved in work that a) you cannot over-prepare for, b) you will always do it for the very first time, c) it is not without risks and d) it is challenging. And, of course, you would be live on national television. So, you don't want to mess up. So, there is some amount of stress on that score. You try to remain focused. But if you do get free time, just savour the experience itself. The compensation for everything was that I had an experience which really was out of the world.
That interaction when former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi asked you how India looks from space and you replied "Saare jahaan se achcha" has become an important moment in India's space travel history. Was it a spontaneous response?
It has become a bit symbolic and in becoming so, I think it has lost some of its deeper meaning. The deeper meaning being that ours is a secular nation, everybody is together and there is unity in diversity. That's what the song exemplifies. It was on top of my recall. When I was a student, it was the second de facto national anthem. In that sense, it seemed to fit perfectly with the mood.
You were also worried because Mrs Gandhi laughed right after.
We didn't have a video link. We were only reacting to her audio. When she laughed, I thought perhaps I had crossed the line since you don't get to speak to the prime minister of the country very often. You're not trained for that (laughs).
Recently, the fading away of the Vikram lander raised concerns on whether developing countries like India should invest in space projects. Do you think there is any merit in that argument?
That argument is as old as space exploration itself. It has been raised not only by Indians, but also Americans time and time again. I think the question itself is wrong. In today's world, where science is galloping at breakneck speed, it just doesn't make sense to try and do things sequentially. You will never ever keep up. You have to do things parallelly. Research and exploration must carry on. In any case, one should not only be looking at capital expenditure alone. One should factor in the returns on that expenditure. If you take that as the benchmark, I think we in India are running the cheapest and most successful space programme in the world. For a viable capital spend, you are getting much, much more in terms of connecting the country. So, as far as returns on investment are concerned, I think we've got a great story. Chandrayaan 2 has been a resounding success, except for the last bit, which is soft landing. The rover, in any case, wasn't designed to go more than 500 metres. But most of the work is being done by the orbiter, which is in good health. It's got eight sensors on board and will send the data which will be shared with the rest of the world.
The space race has only intensified in recent years. Many experts claim that by 2030, space travel will be available to citizens of most countries in the world. Is commercialisation of space travel something we should be wary of?
What we need to be wary of is how it is going to grow. By that, I mean what is going to be the end use of this effort. We split the atoms, but we chose to make horrific weapons of destruction out of them. So, what we do with it, how we utilise the assets we are going to find is going to influence how we are going to live in the future. Will we continue to remain competitive? Especially when there is a United Nations' policy in place, which spells out that outer space belongs to humanity, not any one nation. So, if you are going to be doing this exploration using an exclusive model, then we will be exporting conflict from Planet Earth to outer space. Then, I think, the prospect of Star Wars will not be fictional any more (laughs). Space has the potential to be a unifying factor so that humanity, as a whole, can benefit. That is a perspective that even your astronaut is going to return with after his space flight.
As the first Indian in space, do you have a message for Hazza Al Mansoori, who is soon going to become the first Emirati in space?
Just as I was, he is extremely fortunate to have got this opportunity. He is going to work with professionals who have been in this field for years. I think he should just enjoy the ride and I wish him happy landings and hope he is able to bring back all the results that people on the ground are expecting from him. I wish him a successful flight and a safe return. And I know it is going to be an enriching experience for him, in particular, and for everybody else in the UAE, in general, because the subject of space is going to beam right into their living rooms, thanks to your astronaut.

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