OUR FIRST SPACE MAN

When IAF of­fi­cer Sqn Ldr RAKESH SHARMA flow aboard a Soyuz T11 space­craft on April 2, 1984, he be­came the first In­dian to jour­ney into space. Ho spent 7 days, 21 hours and 40 min­utes aboard the Sa­lyut 7 or­bital sta­tion along with two Soviet as­tro­nauts, Yu

India Today - - COVER STORY - —As told to Raj Chen­gappa

was an im­mense re­lief to hear the prime min­is­ter an­nounce that In­dia will be send­ing a manned mis­sion by 2022. I’ve been wait­ing for this kind of an­nounce­ment for 34 years be­cause we have not had a manned space pro­gramme since I went up. I am ex­tremely thrilled that it has fi­nally hap­pened. Peo­ple ask me whether I am both­ered if my record will be bro­ken, and I tell them, not at all, the more the mer­rier.

The In­dian space pro­gramme is coming of age, in the sense that we have re­alised all the ob­jec­tives that were set for us by the vi­sion­ary Vikram Sarab­hai. It is only nat­u­ral for ISRO to chal­lenge it­self and go to the next level. In that sense, it is a con­tin­ued ef­fort and I think it is hugely ex­cit­ing be­cause we are at a point where, for the very first time, hu­man­ity is mov­ing out of planet Earth with the stated ob­jec­tive of in­hab­it­ing other plan­ets. If we are

go­ing to be a full-fledged player in this field, it is in­evitable that we be a full on space­far­ing na­tion.

Why con­tinue with manned mis­sions and not one with a ro­bot? To be­gin with, I don’t think we will ever ex­plore space with just ro­bots. The hu­man be­ing has got ex­plo­ration writ­ten into his DNA. If there is any ex­plo­ration to be done, the hu­man has to be a part of it. We are also not go­ing there merely to find out the con­stituents of lu­nar soil, we are go­ing there to set­tle. So, ob­vi­ously, hu­mans will have to get com­fort­able in that hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. Also, the fur­ther you go, the more dif­fi­cult it be­comes to achieve the ob­jec­tives of space re­motely. One, there is de­lay in com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Then, some de­ci­sions have to be taken on the spot, and you need hu­mans to be part of the de­ci­sion­mak­ing process. And till such time as suf­fi­ciently pow­er­ful com­put­ers can fully repli­cate the hu­man brain’s po­ten­tial and abil­ity, we can­not be re­placed.

Peo­ple al­ways ask me what I looked for when I first viewed Earth from or­bit. Well, the thing that as­tro­nauts of var­i­ous other coun­tries do is look out for their coun­try. And that’s ex­actly what I did. It was a won­der­ful sight and when our then prime min­is­ter (Indira Gandhi) asked me what In­dia looked like, I told her: Sare ja­han se achchha (the best in the world). Then, slowly, you be­gin to re­alise that bor­ders are not vis­i­ble from space and then you start look­ing at your coun­try as part of a whole and the whole be­ing planet Earth it­self. You come back feel­ing how frag­ile the planet is and how it needs to be pro­tected.

Of course, the best sight from space is the sun­rise and sunset. Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing zero grav­ity is fun too. The hu­man body takes roughly 36 to 48 hours to ac­cli­ma­tise to zero grav­ity once in space. Like­wise, when you re­turn, it takes about that much time to re-adapt to grav­ity. The changes that take place im­me­di­ately af­ter you are in or­bit are adapt­ing to zero grav­ity. The blood tends to rush to the head be­cause the heart con­tin­ues to pump at the same rate as it does while on Earth, as it re­mains un­aware of the changed lo­ca­tion. So, there is a prob­lem of plenty in the up­per ex­trem­i­ties. Your face and tongue swell up. Your eu­stachian canals get en­gorged with blood and be­come over­sen­si­tive. Your head keeps mov­ing about and you de­velop space sick­ness, sim­i­lar to travel sick­ness. Some peo­ple have a prob­lem ad­just­ing. I was among the for­tu­nate ones who didn’t have much prob­lem ad­just­ing to zero grav­ity.

t is phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble to cre­ate zero grav­ity on Earth. We had to take part in aero­plane ma­noeu­vres that cre­ate con­di­tions of zero grav­ity for about 20 sec­onds, so we got a sense of what it is like. In sim­u­la­tion ex­er­cises, we also got a sense of how dif­fi­cult it would be to get out of space suits and into your work­ing clothes. But it wasn’t long enough for us to ex­pe­ri­ence the phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes. So, re­ally speak­ing, those ad­just­ments hap­pened only on the job when we went into space.

When you have to work in zero grav­ity, you run out of hands as ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing needs to be held in place. Don’t tell any­body, but we don’t bathe in space. We just use med­i­cated tow­els to clean our­selves and that’s about it be­cause it is very dif­fi­cult to carry water and to re­cy­cle and re­use it. As for go­ing to the toi­let, it is a well­prac­tised art, shall we say, as even your bod­ily ef­flu­ents are weightless just as you are. So you have to make sure they’re cap­tured ef­fec­tively. It does take some prac­tice.

Sim­i­larly, to un­der­stand the g-forces we ex­pe­ri­ence when we take off or re-en­ter, we prac­tised in cen­trifuge ma­chines to de­velop tol­er­ance for the higher g-forces we ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing space flight. In an aero­plane, it makes no dif­fer­ence whether you fly at Mach 1 or Mach 3. When in space, you’re sub­jected to g-forces that last much longer than in an air­craft. That’s what

one needs to prac­tise.

The en­tire launch se­quence is around nine min­utes, and you ex­pe­ri­ence peaks and troughs of the g-forces. When be­ing launched into space, you are ly­ing on your back and look­ing at the sky. The g-force act­ing on you is from the chest to the spine. The force you feel on your rib cage is four times the amount you feel on your waist. It presses against the spine, leav­ing very lit­tle space for the lungs to ex­pand. So, breath­ing be­comes dif­fi­cult. That is why, on the cen­trifuge tests be­fore launch, you learn the tech­nique of ex­pand­ing your chest and lock­ing your mus­cles to cre­ate space for the lungs to ex­pand and con­tract.

On re-en­ter­ing Earth, you feel the g-forces again. Due to the fric­tion caused by re-en­ter­ing the Earth’s at­mos­phere, the space capsule ex­pe­ri­ences tremen­dous heat. The heat seal of the ve­hi­cle pro­tects the crew and the tem­per­a­ture in­side the capsule is reg­u­lated. How­ever, the flames and blaze it causes are clearly vis­i­ble. The en­tire capsule is en­veloped in flames and the ab­la­tive lay­ers it is coated with keep slic­ing off. You hope the guys on the ground who made the space­craft got the num­ber of lay­ers right, be­cause if they haven’t, you’re toast. Then you have anx­ious mo­ments when the para­chute opens to slow down the capsule’s speed af­ter re-en­ter­ing Earth. When you hear the sound of the link, you won­der whether the para­chute is go­ing to hold strong or you will go into free fall.

When you touch down, your body ex­pe­ri­ences a dif­fer­ent feel­ing. Be­cause af­ter adapt­ing to zero grav­ity in space, your body sends a sig­nal to your heart to slow down and not to pump too much blood. So you achieve a new equi­lib­rium. But when you re­turn, the phe­nom­e­non re­verses. Your heart is now un­der­per­form­ing, as you now have to stand ver­ti­cally due to grav­ity. You feel woozy and light-headed and tend to lose your bal­ance. But it is noth­ing se­ri­ous. You are not pre­pared, though, for the mi­cro­phones the press pushes to­wards you. Your body is just readapt­ing to grav­ity and you are not feel­ing too good an­swer­ing ques­tions. But there is also a feel­ing of re­lief that the flight went off well. From a pro­fes­sional stand­point, you feel ful­filled. It was a job you were en­trusted with and it was achieved with suc­cess.

Af­ter you’ve landed, you mar­vel at how tech­nol­ogy has pro­vided us hu­man so­lu­tions and made it pos­si­ble for us to or­bit space and re­turn safely. I was not wor­ried about my life be­cause it depends on how you process the risk. Per­son­ally, I looked at it think­ing that there were 127 hu­mans who went be­fore me and came back safely. I thought I had a good chance of do­ing so.

For the lucky ones who’ll be cho­sen for the In­dian mis­sion, they are in for the ride of their lives. My ad­vice to them is not to miss any­thing, to keep their eyes, ears and senses open. It is a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence. I’d tell them not to get over­awed by the oc­ca­sion. They’ll be pro­fes­sion­als and am sure will ap­proach this as just an­other day in of­fice. Just an­other test flight.

I’ve been asked if I’d like to go up again. My an­swer is, yes, of course. But this time as a tourist with noth­ing to do but put my nose to the win­dow and watch the won­der­ful scenes I missed while work­ing in space in 1984.

IN­DIA TO­DAY AR­CHIVES

IN­DIA TO­DAY AR­CHIVES

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