Rakesh Sharma: The Indian Space Hero
   Date :10-May-2017

Rakesh Sharma wears his achievements and fame lightly. He joined India's air force at 21 and began flying supersonic jet fighters. He had flown 21 missions in the 1971 war with Pakistan before his 23rd birthday. By 25, he was a test pilot. He travelled into space at 35, the first Indian and the 128th human to do so.
"I had pretty much done it all before I went into space. So when the opportunity came, I went along. It was that simple."

Mr Sharma and his fellow astronauts spent nearly eight days in space: grainy TV images from the time show the three men, in grey jumpsuits, floating around in the Salyut 7 space station, and conducting experiments.
He became the first human to practice yoga in space - using a harness to stop him from floating around - to find out whether it could better prepare crews adapt for the effects of gravity. He spoke to his family once on a live link with 2,500 people in the audience in a Moscow auditorium.

When Mrs Gandhi asked Mr Sharma, on a hazy live link, how India looked from space, he delivered a line in Hindi which would have easily become a viral tweet today.
"Sare Jahan Se Acha [The best in the world]", he said, quoting from a famous poem by Mohammad Iqbal, which he had recited every day in school after the national anthem.


The New York Times presciently wrote that "India is not likely to have its own manned space programme for a long time, if ever, and Mr Sharma's flight may well be the last by an Indian for a long time." Thirty-three years later, Mr Sharma remains the only Indian to travel to space. (Indian-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla went into space decades later and and was one of the seven astronauts killed in the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003.)

India plans to put a citizen into space using an Indian rocket from Indian soil one day. It has already developed a space flight suit for potential astronauts, and successfully tested a crew module dummy flight in the atmosphere. But money is scarce, the home-made launch rocket has to be made flight-ready, astronauts have to be trained and launch facilities built or upgraded.

After his space flight, Mr Sharma returned to his life as a jet pilot. He flew Jaguars, and the India designed fighter jet Tejas. Then he switched gears, working as the chief operating officer of a Boston-based company which made software for manufacturing planes, tanks and submarines.


Eight years ago, the space hero retired and built himself his dream home, with sloping roofs, solar-heated bathrooms, harvested rainwater, handmade bricks excavated from the plot, and a sunlit study stacked with his favourite books and music. He lives with his interior designer wife, Madhu, and their pet dog, Kali. A Bollywood biopic is "in the works", with star Aamir Khan rumoured to play the astronaut.

On asking would he like to return to space again, "I would love to," he says, looking out to the hills from his sprawling balcony.
"But this time I would like to go as a tourist and savour the beauty of Earth. There was too much work when I went up there."