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To the Horizon and Beyond: Sitting Down With Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma

The space-man of India, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, was in town for a day. Sitting down with him, we realised that he was not only a keen observer with great insight, but also a man of quick wit and humour.

Usually, Punjabis are associated with their Army legacy, more so than the Air Force or Navy. What made you choose the Air Wing of the Armed Forces?

Ah well, I made up my mind to join the Air Force before I was aware of the fact that I was a Punjabi! I was very young when I had made up my mind to join the Air Force. And of course, those days are gone when you associated one sect of people with one profession only.

How was the zero gravity experience on Earth different from the actual experience in the outer space? Did the simulations help in adapting to the harsh conditions outside?

On Earth, it is difficult to replicate outer space. They take you up in an aircraft, and it goes through a particular manoeuvre which gives you twenty seconds worth experience of the simulated environment. So you just get a sense of what to expect, but without its further effects on your physiology. So before the effects start taking place, the manoeuvre is over. Twenty seconds is not enough for those physiological changes to occur. So all you get a sense of is how difficult the journey is going to be.

ISRO has made great advances in its aerospace research through the cost-efficient Mangalyaan and the 104 nanosatellites that they’ve launched. Now they’ve recently planned to start manned missions. What would do you think another Rakesh Sharma in space will mean for a developing country like India?

Well, it will probably mean that it is thirty-two years too late. I’ve been waiting for the second Rakesh Sharma for a long time to hand over my duties to. But I think a lot of water has flown through the Ganges between when I went and the way things are now. I do not believe that we are going to add much value to this business with the manned space programme if we are going to merely rediscover the wheel. What we really need to worry about is the end result we are trying to achieve here– are we going to shift focus, or are we going to go out there for a different purpose. For us to be able to do that, it’ll have to be a collaborative effort because it’s a humongous task for any one nation to complete. I think we will be playing an important role in this effort because we are recognised as an accomplished space clearing nation today. So, we can, and we should shape the space future by moving towards meaningful exploration.

In recent times, space has seen a lot of militarisation by countries like China, Russia, and the USA. Do you think India should follow suit, keeping security concerns in mind?

I think we are already almost there. We do have communication satellites, nodes that are going to help in our strategic operations; we do have eyes in the sky, so to speak. These aren’t things that are really advertised, but they certainly exist. They are already adding to the security and making our defence system more efficient.

On one hand, India is battling severe poverty issues, and on the other, it is trying to prove its technological worth to the world through its future manned missions. How can a balance be struck, and both these targets achieved, given our country’s financial constraints?

If we go the same route we have been taking till now, and do just what other countries have already achieved, then no middle ground can be found. We shouldn’t go into space for the sake of earning brownie points from developed countries. We have, and should continue to go there for a purpose, and I think we are achieving it spectacularly. So it really depends on what kind of vision do we really have. If the past is anything to go by, then I believe our vision will also be a little¬†hatke.¬†If that happens, we are adding value to this whole game. And I hope that’s what we do because repeating what’s already been done is not going to excite anyone or be useful in any way.