Wing Commander (retired) Rakesh Sharma recently completed 35 years of being the first Indian to have ever set foot in space. He talked to Down To Earth about the exhilarating moment, space exploration, humans as multi-planetary species, ISRO’s plan to send a humanoid to space and weaponisation of space in a four-part series. Here is the third one:
The delay in formulation of the Gaganyaan Mission is not due to a deficit in conceptualisation. It is a question of prioritisation. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was translating the vision of Vikram Sarabhai into reality and in that sense, the Indian space programme has been a very focused and relevant one for a developing nation, which, to begin with, one would have thought had no business to be in this kind of business.
But having gone there, the focus has been to leverage whatever gains we get through space technology for the common man which ISRO has done spectacularly well. Whether you look at connecting all of India — even the remotest parts; whether you look at satellite technology being leveraged for education, communication, television and telemedicine. So, it has impacted the life of the common man. Remote sensing has helped the economy. ISRO’s focus has been towards these things. And now that that vision has more or less translated successfully, ISRO is moving to the next level.
I am in contact with ISRO regarding Gaganyaan and the next missions. Whenever they need my opinion or expertise, they do call upon me. And whenever there are meetings where go-aheads are given or policies are made, I am there.
ISRO plans to use a humanoid robot to simulate human space travel in the Gaganyaan Mission. In my view, we will most certainly get enough information out of this simulation to do an actual mission with humans.
If you recall, when space exploration first started, there was a monkey which was sent up. Technology has moved ahead. You now have much better instrumentation. So, a humanoid which is bristling with sensors will give you a whole heap of data regarding the environment within the capsule and how it has performed during the entire flight. It is a good method to de- risk your first human launch.
During my time in space, I conducted three types of experiments. One was, of course, earth resources where we photographed the Indian landmass using a multispectral camera which was onboard the Soviet space station. That was one.
Then, there was material sciences. We tried to grow a crystal of silver and germanium. Unfortunately, we had a problem with the furnace which was up there in orbit at that time and on board the Salyut that used to keep malfunctioning. Had that experiment been successful, we could have come back with a sample of a material which would have been as strong as a metal but as transparent as glass.
The last experiment was on biomedicine. The doctors wanted to have a better idea of how human systems like the cardiovascular system and vestibular system perform when subjected to zero gravity.
There have been changes in the way these experiments are conducted now. The database of the earth resources experiment became a template against which when our own IRS satellites could compare when they went up later. The other experiments were in the realm of pure research and would be used as and when required. Perhaps, we will continue with some unfinished or some newer experiment in these or associated domains.
Gaganyaan can add more new knowledge to the experiments that I conducted. Its first focus should be anything which can help people back on Earth. And I guess because India has not brought out a doctrine or published a White Paper or has made its long-term plans known, one doesn’t really know what the end game is going to be like, what we are aspiring for.
Once that is clear, one can work backwards. And then draw the line on those dots as to what India should be doing and what kind of work we need to do first in near earth orbit. Because first, we have got to establish ourselves in the near earth orbit. Be able to get something fruitful out of that environment and perhaps later, but by then, we would have developed the expertise to be an equal partner in collaborative ventures while setting up habitations, initially on the Moon and later on Mars.
(As told to Akshit Sangomla)
Here is the second part of the series: Humans will leave Earth not to explore, but to exploit
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