Friday, April 1, 2011

Tete-e-tete with Rakesh Sharma and Sunita Williams--50th anniv

       With the countdown for the 50th anniv celebrations of the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin inching towards the zero mark---the day is April 12,2011---``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)'' interviewed two astronauts who have flown to space regarding the significance of the 50th anniversary.

       One was Rakesh Sharma who took off on April 3,1984, to the Salyut-7 space station from the Baikonaur cosmodrome as a part of the joint Indo-Soviet space odyssey. The interview was conducted from a garden, a stone's throw distance away from BMM's house at Breach Candy in Mumbai.

       The other was Indian-American astronaut, Sunita Williams, who logged 195 days in space breaking any previous record held by women astronauts in space Both these interviews hopefully should be published in a national daily.

        BMM had met both of them during the International Astronautical Congress at Hyderabad in September 2007.

       In the case of Sunita, BMM adhered to the Nasa procedure-- it applied to the Nasa's public affairs office both in Washington and Houston . Within a few days a very helpful Nasa official from the Johnson Space Centre, Gayle Frere,  replied that the interview by telephone had been fixed for 7.30 a.m. (central daylight time) on April 1,2011. An e mail interview was ruled out.

      On getting his answer, BMM after seeking clearance from its wife, Usha, got the isd facility activated in its mobile. Thiis process was completed in 24 hours. Then with the help of its good friend and secretary of India chapter of Moon Society, Pradeep Mohandas, and a time converter, calculated the time in India when it is 7,30 Houston. . Both the time converter and Pradeep said that will be 7 p.m. in India.

      So, based on this,  exactly at 6.55 p.m. BMM called the Johnson Space Centre (JSC).. An extremely polite voice at the other end replied: ``The astronauts' office. May I help you.'' BMM explained the purpose of the call. The woman asked me to hold on saying that she will look for Sunni. BMM did not quite understand what it meant!.

      Two minutes later she came back and very apologetically said that since it was daylight saving time in Houston, the time was 8.30 a.m. in Houston. BMM had missed the interview by an hour because of a mis communication. BMM felt very disappointed because it felt that a grand opportunity had been missed. However, it said that it will take a shot again at 8.30 pm (IST). The woman at the astronauts' office welcomed the idea.

      BMM went out and came back at 8 p.m. At sharp 8.30 p.m. it called JSC again. The woman said: ``Oh yeah! Sunni is right here. She is waiting to talk to you."" BMM could not believe this.

      What was meant to be a 15-minute interview went on for 30 minutes---as it happened with Kalpana Chawla in December 1997. Sunni spoke about the significance Gagarin's flight, the 50th anniv, the debate between the advantages and disadvantages between manned and unmanned missions and of course the space shuttle. BMM felt extremely rewarded! She answered all the questions very patiently.

       BMM was lucky that it spoke to Sunni on Friday night because she was leaving for Moscow on Saturday to participate in the 50th anniversary celebrations and begin her training to fly to the International Space Station in a Soyuz spacecraft in May 2012. She will be the commander of the space station and return in December 2012.      

       BMM felt happy that during the 50th anniv it managed to talk two space people of eminence.

       For Sunni's interview, a big thank you to Gayle Frere.

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