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I can go to space again: Rakesh Sharma

By M D Riti in Bangalore
February 07, 2003 20:23 IST
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The Columbia shuttle disaster, in which Indian American Kalpana Chawla and six of her colleagues perished, has not deterred Wing Commander (retd) Rakesh Sharma, India's first man in space.

"I am quite willing to go into space again, in a space shuttle or a capsule... I do not mind who takes me either," says Sharma, who test-flew planes for the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and retired two years ago.

It was in April 1984 that Sharma went into space on the Soyuz T-11 with the Russians. He was trained for one-and-a-half years for the eight-day trip.

What every Indian probably remembers best about that legendary voyage are the words that Sharma used to describe India to a waiting prime minister Indira Gandhi. "Jaise saare jahan se achcha," he said, immortalising himself in the hearts of all Indians who heard him on tape over the following years.

The one thing that cosmonauts are trained most to cope with is zero gravity. For example, Sharma, who recently gave a lecture in Bangalore on the kind of training that is given to astronauts, recalled that they were all made to sleep with their heads lower than their feet.

Sharma says that six months before the launch, he dropped the fitness regime that the other cosmonauts were following and did intensive yoga. This was to assess whether yoga helps people cope better with the lack of gravity.

He says he had no time to be exited or worried in space. "There was so much hectic activity on board the spaceship, so many things that each of us had to do, that we literally had no time to sit around and stare into space..."

He says that the worst moment of his trip was when the Soyuz T-11, a single-use spaceship in which the procedure for landing was different, caught fire.

"The space capsule burnt when it re-entered the earth's atmosphere. As the layers of atmosphere became denser, the surface friction became high and the spaceship began to burn off in layers. I can still recall... it was all so noisy."

As this was going on, Sharma and his fellow astronauts parachuted.

"It was quite frightening to bail out of a burning spaceship. We had to parachute out over the desert of Kazakhstan."

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M D Riti in Bangalore