On 3 April 1984, Rakesh Sharma, a 35-year-old fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, embarked on a quest that would go on to define his life. He travelled to space and discovered that the universe is much more beautiful than the images which had been recorded till then.
When he returned to India, having spent eight days aboard the Russian Salyut 7 orbital space station, he was often asked by fans if he had met God up there.
Sharma, of course, only had answers relating to science and space travel—biomedical experiments designed to gain an insight into the working of the human cardiovascular system in microgravity, experiments on Earth’s resources for future use, and in the domain of materials science. “The flight itself was an opportunity grasped by the scientific community to carry out research in an otherwise unapproachable area. It did just that by designing instruments that were used to measure the results of experiments in space,” Sharma says on email.
In a country with a population of over 750 million in 1984 , Sharma became the first Indian to travel to space. In a country with a population of over 1.3 billion now, Sharma continues to be the only Indian to have done so. It is a record he has held for 33 years, but Sharma knows it won’t hold for much longer. “When I flew, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) had not started on a manned space programme. Our space agency maintained a single-minded focus on mastering satellite building and on bringing the benefits of space technology for the common good of our countrymen. Think telemedicine, television, tele-education,” says Sharma. “Now that Isro has achieved spectacular success in those areas, it is getting ready to expand its footprint in the realm of space exploration. I will not be the last Indian to travel to space.”
Growing up in Hyderabad, the Uttarakhand hill station of Mussoorie was the farthest he had travelled to. From space, however, Sharma got the full measure of India: a sight of “this huge coastline, the lovely blue ocean on three sides…the dry plateaus, forests, river plains, golden sands of the desert. The majestic Himalayas looked purple because sunlight cannot get into the valleys,” is how Sharma outlined the experience in a recent BBC article by Soutik Biswas.
Sharma was inspired to take up a career in flying early on. As a six-year-old, he nurtured dreams of being a chauffeur so that he could read comics and storybooks while waiting for the sahib. This was before a much older cousin took him to the air force base where he worked. “He sat me in the cockpit of a Vampire fighter jet he was training on. The array of dials and instruments got me hooked for life. I could hardly wait to grow up and fly one of those machines,” Sharma recollects.
A year later, the cousin died in a plane crash. “I was too young to feel emotions like grief. Instead, the episode left me with the feeling that this (flying) was dangerous business. Inexplicably, I found that exciting instead of intimidating and I dreamt of flirting with danger. It probably came from the books I read.”
Sharma’s first flight as a passenger came when a neighbour with a pilot’s licence invited him for a ride in a two-seater Pushpak aircraft. With an “ignorant” passenger around, the pilot tried to indulge in some grandstanding, “doing tighter and tighter turns while I made the appropriate noises in wonderment”. Suddenly, the aircraft “flicked” and “we were like a falling leaf towards Mother Earth. I think relaxing on the controls aided recovery and we breathed easier, he with relief, and I with excitement as at that time I was unaware of the dangers of uncontrolled flight”.
Sharma would go on to join a profession stalked by the stark reality of death. He joined the air force when he was just 21, and within two years, would fly 21 missions during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war—this time, he had to confront the death of some colleagues. By the time he was selected from among 50 aspirants for 1984’s space flight, Sharma was an experienced operational pilot and a test pilot who “had the thought of death resulting from the space flight but only as a possibility”. His selection, Sharma dismisses lightly, was a result of being young, fit and at the right place at the right time.
Preparing for the space mission was a rigorous exercise. Before Sharma travelled to the erstwhile USSR for the joint mission between Isro and the Soviet Intercosmos space programme, the air force confined him for 72 hours in a windowless room at a facility in Bengaluru. The room had no television, radio, clock or books; there was nobody he could speak to. A bell would ring to alert him that it was time to remotely measure his blood pressure.
In between, he had to answer psychological questionnaires. Sharma refuses to elaborate on this. A biopic is being planned with Bollywood actor Aamir Khan playing the lead and Sharma is understandably shy of answering questions that “match the script”.
A year before the launch, he and another Indian, Ravish Malhotra, were moved to Star City, which is home to a high-security cosmonaut training facility, on the outskirts of Moscow. They were trained in Russian and put on a controlled diet while Olympic veterans put them through strenuous physical tests, even as Sharma himself tried out yoga. He was told he had been selected as one of the three cosmonauts (the other two were Russian), with Malhotra on standby. In the manner characteristic of the reluctant space hero, 68-year-old Sharma says he considered the pioneering rocket launch “as just another flight”.
It certainly wasn’t that for India.
In 1984, India was still a country with a single television channel, a single airline, a singular way of communicating via the fixed dial phone, and its only Metro railway system had just become operational in Kolkata.
I remember sitting around the black and white TV at home with family and neighbours when the Doordarshan signal flickered with the foggy transmission of Sharma’s interaction from the space capsule with then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. I was just 6 myself, so the import of the occasion escaped me, but there was no missing the infectious enthusiasm of the elders in the room—an outpouring of emotion that I later came to recognize as national pride. The country travelled vicariously with its first spaceman to the very edges of human imagination.
Sharma himself sent the entire country into a tizzy when, in reply to the prime minister’s query on how India looked from space, he quoted the poet Iqbal’s immortal lines, “Saare jahan se achcha.” India and Sharma found hope in each other. 1984 would go on to be a harrowing year marked by the bloodshed during Operation Blue Star at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the humanitarian disaster following the lethal gas leak from the Bhopal facility of Union Carbide.
The BBC article on Sharma describes how “Gandhi was pushing for an Indian in space before the 1984 general elections” and sought the help of the Soviet Union, a trusted ally. On his return, Sharma found himself being paraded by local leaders in their constituencies.
The former wing commander and winner of the country’s highest peacetime gallantry award, the Ashok Chakra, would go on to articulate his own thoughts in statesman-like fashion during a 2014 interview to Rbth.com, a Russia-focused international multimedia news project.
“It is my belief that humanity has been unable to break out of the cycle of violence for centuries because we cling to our identities; that of colour, nationality, language and culture. Space provides us a great opportunity to collaborate and cooperate with other nations, provided that the agenda is to explore space for peaceful purposes and for the greater good of humanity,” he said. “If we pursue individual national objectives during the coming years of space exploration, we shall only be succeeding in exporting human conflict from Earth to outer space.”
I ask him to expand on this observation. “The basis of India’s cultural philosophy is inclusive—vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family)—while that of the rest of the world is exclusive. I believe that exclusivity breeds conflict. If we choose competition over collaboration during future space exploration endeavours, we will merely be creating newer battlefields,” he writes back from his home in Tamil Nadu’s Coonoor, where he leads a retired life with his wife. From space, Sharma tells me, he couldn’t fathom the boundaries between nations.
Among the most unattainable final frontiers for man, space may have seen nations competing with each other during the Cold War phase, but now, with American entrepreneur and innovator Elon Musk announcing plans to take tourists to space through his SpaceX project, and even the colonization of Mars, some of the mystery surrounding space travel may disappear.
Sharma thinks Musk is putting his money to good use. “There is a role for the private sector in support of space activity but, in time, I suspect it will be confined to the exploitation of what space has to offer rather than in exploration of space per se. Therein lies the rub,” says Sharma. “The base philosophy of the private sector is exclusive—profit only for investors,” he adds.
Yet space, we know, is as endless as the opportunities it promises. “As for the upper limit of space travel, right now we are limited by the speed of light. Human life span presently limits the distance one can travel. If we crack this limitation—of speed, not life span—and time travel becomes a reality, the possibilities become truly limitless,” he says. “If yesterday’s science fiction has become today’s reality, what is to stop today’s science fiction from becoming tomorrow’s reality?”