Rakesh Sharma, then squadron leader and pilot with the Indian Air Force embarked on the historic mission in 1984 as part of a joint space program between the Indian Space Research organisation and the Soviet Intercosmos space program and spent eight days in space aboard the Salyut 7 space station. The trip made Rakesh Sharma the first Indian in Space but the event is also remembered for a conversation from space that he had with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
By Guest Contributor – Rakesh Sharma
Time flies. It has flown these last 25 years and 1984, seems like yesterday.
Some of us Air Force Test Pilots were informed two years earlier that volunteers were required for a project that until then was under wraps. I signed up and so did many others thinking that it involved flight testing of a jet fighter aircraft our country was intending to purchase. It became clear after a while that this was about a Space Flight. The penny dropped then. Volunteers were never called for when testing of aircraft was required; that was a part of our function.
Things moved very fast thereafter and we were subjected to a battery of tests – in fact, all that was known to medical science at that time. Before long, Ravish Malhotra and I found ourselves at Star City, the then Soviet Cosmonaut Training Centre, attending classes and training in earnest for the space flight which was still 18 months away.
Within a week in Sep 1982, we learnt that the Indian Prime Minister was going to pay a visit to Star City. That was the first of my four meetings with Mrs. Indira Gandhi, all official and all of them in the glare of the media. The next time that I met her was in July 1983, when we came home half way through our training. Mrs. Gandhi was hosting the victorious Indian Cricket team led by Kapil Dev, shortly after it returned to India with the World Cup.
Our next meeting was under trying circumstances – for me, that is. I was in orbit and at the other end of the line was India’s PM, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. It must be appreciated that junior military officers are not trained to speak with Heads of Government, especially when they are floating about in Space with the entire Nation as the invited audience! I had volunteered for the flight, unaware that speaking to the PM with the Nation watching, was going to be a part of the duty that needed to be taken in ones stride. Thankfully, I could only hear (and not see) her as the video up-link could not be established! Later, when I returned home after the flight, I was informed by a Doordarshan cameraman, that he had been covering Mrs. Gandhi ever since her I&B Ministry days but had never seen her as animated, radiant and happy as she was on the day she spoke with me and my crew mates while were in orbit on 6th April, 1984. I believe that statement because I had seen her in a similar frame of mind, the previous year when she was hosting the Indian cricket team.
These two incidents coupled with my subsequent meetings with her at Rashtrapati Bhavan during the investiture ceremony; the dinner hosted by her at Hyderabad House in honour of the Soviet Cosmonauts visiting India after the flight and then again, at Mr. Gorbachev’s banquet, showed me how proud she was of India’s achievements in various fields like Science and Technology, Sports etc.. And, this was no passing interest if you factor in her other initiative like setting up Dakshin Gangotri at Antarctica.
So, 1984 was an eventful and packed year. Sadly, on this day, 25 years ago, she was no more; a life snuffed out by one who was supposed to protect her – the final link in a complex chain of cause and effect. On that day, India lost an influential leader. Indian Science and Technology, lost a visionary patron.