A chat with “The Guilty Cosmonaut” Rakesh Sharma
On the evening of October 22, an eager audience waited at Chaitya hall, Fortune Inn Valley View for a man whose feats are out of the world, quite literally. The crowd anticipated the arrival of Wing commander Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian and the 128th human to go to space. ‘The Think Tank’, a club run by students of Manipal Institute of Technology (MIT) had organised the event called ‘A fireside chat with Rakesh Sharma’.
The talk was divided into parts and covered various aspects of Rakesh Sharma’s life in his own words. Describing his childhood as normal, he narrated how the dream of becoming a pilot was planted in a 6-year-old Rakesh’s head by an intriguing sound from the sky, that belonged to the fighter jet ‘Vampire’. He recounted how he would run around all day with his hands spread out imitating the sound of Vampire with the wish to fly someday. But, with only one cousin brother in the air force, who died in an unfortunate air accident two months after being commissioned, young Rakesh had to work hard to convince his parents who eventually allowed him to pursue his dream.
With his family’s support, he got into the National Defence Academy (NDA) at the age of 17, where he hated maths throughout the course. When asked that if he ever felt the urge to quit due to the strict rules, he mischievously mentions how the most important rule is “Do not get caught.” After finishing NDA, he was assigned the same fighter jet squadron which had initiated this dream, the Vampire.
Recalling his air force days, Rakesh Sharma said that he was the only one from his batch to fly in the Indo-Pak war despite having just 50 hours of flying experience. He had quickly progressed through the ranks and become a Squadron leader. Later, 6 months into an 11-month long training he was finally told about the space mission. Out of the numerous psychological and physical tests that he had to endure to get selected, he distinctly remembers the claustrophobia test in which the participants were isolated in a room without any television, magazines, or even a clock for 72 hours. He jokingly described this period as a mini-holiday as he was overloaded with work before he went in and what was a challenge for many, was a welcome break for him.
He went on to narrate many similar incidents from his training emphasizing on the Russian teacher who knew no English or Hindi and served as an experiment to test other teaching methods. Surprisingly, the experiment did work as the team was ready to train with Russian instructors and manuals in Russian in just three months. Sharma considers meeting and interacting with his idols of space exploration and getting a chance to learn from them the best parts of his training. Referring to the cold war period he said, “The entire programme was scientific in content, but had other geopolitical motives.”
Talking about his trip to space, he told how he still feels ‘guilty’ that he was the only one who could go and experience all the beauty and hence loves to share his experience of the breath-taking sights he saw; the beautiful Indian coastlines, the purple shade of the Himalayas and the golden sands of Rajasthan. When asked about his famous quote while talking to Indira Gandhi, describing India as “Saare Jahaan se accha”, he proudly claimed that he just said what he observed, and then jokingly added that he would have said the same if the African ruler would have asked him this question.
Rakesh Sharma was also the first man to do yoga in space. 3 months before the launch, he stopped the Russian training and switched to specially chosen yoga-asanas to help him deal with space sickness and it worked well for him.
Upon his return from space, he found the media coverage disconcerting and felt like this space trip was a flight where he had to “Fly once, pay forever”. When asked if he would want to go back to space, he said he would love to but this time he would like to go as a tourist and spend all his time with his nose sticking to the window, admiring the view.
Rakesh Sharma also answered questions from the audience. He talked about the need to create facilities and a challenging environment to stop the brain drain in India, his view on colonising other planets which he believes is “not just possible, but necessary” because mankind needs those resources. Sharma also gave his views on the Indian research sector in aviation and deliberated on its need to form long-term visions and stick to them.
One of the attendees, Rejoice Yadli, a 2nd-year student from Faculty Of Architecture (FOA) said, “Honestly, I was a little unsure earlier about the event because I don’t know much about space and science. But, I still picked up a lot from his life and it was overall a great, fun experience.”
Featured Image Courtesy: Divyansh Bargotra
Edited by Shivani Singh