Friday, June 24, 2011

From Surat to the Stars-----Congrats Siddharth.

      A joke about ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM) is that it was born with rocket fuel in its mouth!

      Ever since BMM from its infancy developed a passion for space exploration, it has had a dream---that of visiting Baikonour in Kazakhsthan and Star City near Moscow where cosmonauts are trained. BMM has visited Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre twice, the European spaceport of Kourou in French Guyana once and of course several times our very own Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota to cover a rocket launch.

      But, BMM's dream of visiting Baikonour and Star City have so far remained unfulfilled. It hopes someday it will be able to go there and touch the launch pad from where Yuri Gagarin took off on April 12,1961 at Baikonour. BMM has laminated a small map of Baikonour which it has displayed in its room--a mini space centre--and looks at it every now and then!

     Now it is Baikonour to Surat. A big jump. One may wonder what is the connection? Why Surat?  BMM has visited Surat twice or thrice--a few hours drive from Mumbai en route to Ahmedabad. This quite town of Surat which rarely makes news shot into the international space arena recently.

     And how?  Not that the authorities are constructing a spaceport at Surat. It has rocketed into the stars thanks to a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student, Siddharth Kalra, a student of Sardar Vallabhai National Institute of Technology.

     How did it happen? As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin, the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, the Russian Centre for Science and Culture, Mumbai, UNESCO, and another organisation known as Rossotrudnichestvo, organised a world space olympiad which saw the participation of nearly 50,000 space-crazy youngsters from all over the world.

     The competition consisted of three rounds. The first two were on line and in the final test the candidates had to submit a project. Siddharth's disseration focussed on the development of astronautics and space exploration in the next 50 years.

     Of the several who took part, 20 were short listed for the final round which consisted of facing a panel of examiners about their project at the Russian Centre For Science and Culture at Paris. And who were the examiners? They were Russian and European astronauts and cosmonauts, including the celebrated Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space on June 16,1963.

     Said Siddharth: ``At the end of my presentation Valentina told me that she saw in my eyes a future space explorer and space engineer. I hugged her. It was an honour to meet her,'' Siddharth told BMM.       

      The D-day was April 21. Siddharth will never forget this day. He was formally declared the world topper in the tough global space olympiad. What a moment for this talented and brilliant youngster!

       The award consisted of among things a visit to Moscow, Baikonour and Star City which would surely make any spacebuff like BMM envious!!!!

        As luck could have it, Siddharth arrived at Baikonour on the very day the Soyuz TMA-02M was being launched. It was June 7, 2011. He recalled: `` It was 2 a.m. at Baikonour and I was just a km away from the launch pad. I witnessed the terrific lift off the mighty and powerful rocket carrying three cosmonauts. I have never experienced a sound like that. It was monstrous. But, I also felt it was like sunrise, because the fiery plume of the rocket lit up the night sky. The vehicle was in sight for a few minutes. Then it gradually disappeared out of sight and its sound slowly began to fade away. What a sight and what a moment for me,'' he said.

        Apart from the rocket launch, he also visited a few other facilities at Baikonour including an international school, where all the subjects are related to space from Std V. He was also shown the house where Gagarin slept the night before his historic mission which took off on April 12,1961. The highlight of his visit was shaking hands with the world's first spacewalker, Alexei Leonov. Leonov executed his feat on March 18,1965. ``Leonov congratulated me and I took his autograph. I found him to be an extremely nice person,'' Siddharth said. 

         At Star City, not far from Moscow, he visited the cosmonauts' training facilities and of course the office of Gagarin.

         Siddharth's dream is to participate in India's space programme. He said: ``I hope I can witness a launch at Sriharikota.''  Next month there is a launch and BMM hopes that Isro will arrange for Siddharth to watch the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle lift off.

         Congrats Siddharth!  You have brought honour to your family, your college and above all India.Sure you are a  role model for many youngsters. Instead of worshipping film stars, they should emulate your example.

         You will definately make it to the stars.

         Keep it up. 

         Congrats again.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rakesh Sharma's message on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's space flight

       On Tuesday evening, ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)'' received a precious and historical document while attending a wonderful Russian folk dance show at the Russian Centre For Science and Culture

       A centre official, my good friend, Rajeev, thoughtfully gave me two copies of the document. Of these, BMM plans to laminate one and prominently display it in its room once the renovation work is over which seems never-ending.

       It is a message from none other than India's first spaceman, Wing Commander (retd) Rakesh Sharma to the consul general of the Russian Federation in Mumbai, Alexi A.Novikov, to mark the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's space flight.

       Sharma's message says: ``Your Excellency. The world was wonder struck on this very day 50 years ago, when Yuri Gagarin returned back to Earth after a successful orbital space flight. I was a student attending school at that time and this event fired the imagination of my generation. Little did I know that 23 years later, I would be following him into space along with my Russian colleagues. In that sense, Yuri's words were prophetic for he had hoped as much when he spoke during his visit to India after his historic space flight.''

       ``We marvel at all that has been achieved by space in these 50 years. This is a time to reflect and salute Yuri Gagarin, the space scientists and technicians that made his flight possible. It is a tribute to the indomitable exploratory spirit of Man and the heroism displayed by Yuri, who braved this unknown frontier just because he believed in the capabilities of all those who had worked to make his flight possible,'' the message states.

       ``On that historic day, the 12th of April, 1961, Yuri Gagarin and his team showed the world that it was possible to launch a human into space and return him safely back to earth,'' the historic message concludes.

       It is signed: ``Rakesh Sharma Research Cosmonaut India Soyuz-T-11/Salyut-7/Soyuz-T-10. 03April to 11 April 1984.

       BMM first saw this message when it was displayed along with other pictures of Yuri Gagarin and space-related events during the Russian national day party at the Taj on Monday night. BMM immediately approached the ever helpful Rajeev and requested him for a photo copy of the message.

       Rajeev immediately agreed and on Tuesday evening provided two copies.

       Thank you Rajeev. 

Decline of US space power............................say three well known `writers.'

     On the eve of the 50th anniv of President Kennedy's historic speech declaring that America will launch a manned mission to the moon, three people wrote an article in USA Today regretting the decline of US space power and how it has drifted away from President Kennedy's space vision.

     Kennedy made the speech on May 25,1961 and the article was published on May 24.

     Three well known writers are Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the surface of the moon, Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13 and Eugene Cernan, the last man to step on lunar surface.

     Quoting the President's address, they say that half a century has passed since Kennedy challenged the American citizenry to do what most thought to be impossible. ``Our efforts enhanced international co-operation with Apollo-Soyuz, the space shuttle and the International Space Station.The compelling fascination of our space achievements among young people spurred their interest in education,'' they wrote.

     They were happy that the Constellation programme---a project to revive manned lunar landings and possibly even a human mission to Mars--was developing and enjoyed wide support. But poor funding made the Obama adminstation that it was not viable.

      The writers wonder whether the decision to cancel the Constellation programme was because of vested economic interests ``Obama's advisers, in searching for a new and different Nasa-strategy with which the president could be favourably identified, ignored Nasa's operationa mandate and strayed widely from President Kennedy's vision and the will of the American people,'' they regret.

       They further regret that the  2012 budget has reduced funding significantly below the authorised amount for both a big rocket and a multipurpose crew vehicle for carrying humans to the moon and beyond..It focusses on the development of rockets and spacecraft by commercial entrepreneurs. They doubt whether these entrepreneurs have the capacity to launch such a mission.

       ``The response to Kennedy's bold challenge half-century ago has led to America's unchallenged leadership in space. We take enormous pride in all that has been accomplished in the past 50 years. And we have the people, the skills and the wherewithal to continue to excel and reach challenging goals in space exploration,'' they have written.

       They say: ``But, today, America'a leadership in space is slipping. Nasa's human spaceflight programme is in substantial disarray with no clear-cut mission in the offing. We will have no rockets to carry humans to low earth orbit and beyond for an indeterminate number of years. Congress has mandated the development of rocket launchers and spacecraft to explore the near-solar system beyond earth orbit. But, Nasa has not yet announced a convincing strategy for their use. After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America's leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent,'' they have regretted in their article.



Thursday, June 9, 2011

Russian cosmonaut in Mumbai

        One place ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)'' would love to while away his time is the domestic terminal at Santa Cruz, especially terminal 1B which is used by private operators.

         It is full of life and activity and the swanky fast food joints and the new 24X7 lounge bar just outside the arrival area are a delight.

         On Wednesday evening, BMM went to the airport not to kill time but to meet and interview a special person.

         He was travelling by a Jet Airways flight from Chennai which was delayed by nearly 30 minutes. It was to have landed at 7.25 p.m., but arrived at 8 p.m. BMM spent its time chatting with a new friend, an energetic intern from Sophia College, Vidya Subramaniam, who was assigned to photograph the visitor by the Times of India..

         The flight touched down just before 8 p.m. and Vidya and BMM positioned themselves just outside the arrival area. None of the passengers who came out of the arrival hall were aware that there was a special type of passenger inside.

         We waited and waited and still there was no sign of him.

          And finally he came. There he was. How did BMM recognise him? He was escorted by the Russian vice consul V.V. Dementiev a close friend of BMM, and an interpreter from the Russian consulate.

          Who was this special person?  He was the 100th man who flew into space, 71-year-old Victor P.Savinykh, who has logged 252 days, 17 hours,37 minutes and 50 seconds in space. In all he has flown three space missions starting from March-May 1981.

           His visit was a part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the first manned space flight by Yuri Gagarin on April 12,1961. 

            Vidya took several pics of him in that beautiful terminal. The time was around 8.15 p.m. Getting nearer Toi's deadline. Time was really running out and as a result the interview was not an exhaustive one.

             Dementiev suggested that I interview him sitting in his car and it was a great idea. Reproduced below are the points:-

             * The purpose of his visit to Mumbai?

              A--To participate in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the first manned space flight by Yuri Gagarin and excite and inspire kids to join the space profession. ``I am going to do this at the Nehru Centre tomorrow,'' he said.

             * His most memorable moment in space?

              A--There are plenty, but I will never forget how me and my crew mates restored the tumbling Salyut-7 space station which was going out of control. It had lost a lot of its energies. It was quite tough task and proved to be quite a challenge. We did it successfully and it happened in 1985. A year earlier in April 1984, it was occupied by Rakesh Sharma---the first Indian spaceman.

             * The debate between the advantages and disadvantages of manned and unmanned space missions. There is a feeling that manned missions are largely prompted by political considerations. Can he comment?

              A-No I do not agree. Yes, manned missions do have a huge political element, but the focus is also there on a lot of scientific research. Infact I would say that manned flights help to evaluate technologies for unmanned missions.

              *  How does he compare the space shuttle with the Russian Soyuz spacecraft?

              A--Both are reliable, but the shuttle faces more challenges.

               *- Does he regret not having flown to the moon?

              A--I have no regrets of not going to the moon. But, yes I do want to return to space. I have made this request to the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roskosmos. They said that they will consider it taking into consideration my age. If the American astronaut, John Glenn can fly at the age 77 in a space shuttle, why can't I?'' he asked.

              After the interview which was around 9 p.m. BMM had to hunt for a cyber cafe to file the interview for the TOI in Vile Parle (east) whch was not that easy. Finally, it located one and while doing the report the net stopped functioning because of a problem with the server. A few minutes later the net came back and by the time BMM completed the report it was nearly 9.30 p.m. 

              Neither Vidya's pics nor BMM's story made it to the paper on Thursday.

              Not surprised.

              At the Nehru Centre on Thursday morning.

              He inaugurated a photography exhibition related to space and then distributed participation certificates to 60 children who took part in a painting contest called ``First In Space''  now on display at the Star City, the home of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre near Moscow.

              Speaking to the kids, he said that in the last 50 years 37 countries have sent their people to space and India is among them. ``Rakesh Sharma's flight triggered a lot of excitement among youngsters to go into space,'' he said .

              Post Gagarin and post Rakesh Sharma flight, more and more people became involved in space research. ``India has launched different types of rockets and satellites and I am happy that this country is also planning a manned space mission,'' he stated.

              In his evening presentation at the Nehru Centre, he gave a background about his space missions and praised India's space technology. ``Russia used an Indian satellite to probe a forest fire last year,'' he said while adding that this country's space achievements have matured to such an extent that they can help other space faring nations to accomplish their space objectives.

              Unfortunately, because of the heavy rains at Chembur, my friend Pradeep Mohandas, could not make it to the lecture. Sure, he did miss something.

              Comparing the Russian and US space programmes, he said that in the last 50 years, there was just one cancellation of a rocket flight in Russia and another one exploded. Otherwise, all other missions took off without any hitch. ``At the Baikonour cosmodrome the weather is fine and even during winter the rockets are launched on schedule,'' he stated.

              At Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre, missions get postponed or cancelled because of uncertainty in the weather or technical problems.

               According to him alll international space missions have to be international in character.

               He said that Mumbai should erect a statue of Gagarin and also name the new flyover at Lalbaug after him.

               A good idea.  .



Tuesday, June 7, 2011

An international crew to the International Space Station

        It is a space mission which lifted off from the Baikonor cosmodrome early on Wednesday (IST) having as its motto--- let bygones be bygones.

        A Russian, a Japanese and an American boarded a hi tech TMA-02M Soyuz spacecraft and blasted off to the International Space Station (ISS) where they will spend about five months joining three others.

       Those who flew on Wednesday are Sergey Volkov who is making his second visit to space, Nasa astronaut, Mike Fossum who is flying to space for the third time and the Japanese, Satoshi Furukawa, for whom it is the first.

       Why bygones be bygones?

       In his blog Fossum says: ``Who could have imagined back then the launch to begin Russia's second half century of human spaceflight would include an American air force colonel, a Russian and a Japanese doctor-cum-astronaut. The history of our three countries includes periods of intense conflict and horrific strife, yet here we are---American, Russian and Japanese crew mates fused together as a crew.............''

      The three crew members represent nations which at one time faught with each other, but now united in their aim to explore space. Their motto apparently is: let bygones be bygones.They are carrying about 40 experiments to the space station which includes growing food in space.

      It is the 110th flight of the Soyuz spacecraft since the first one was launched in 1967. It is the second mission using the upgraded Soyuz TMA spacecraft which has a modernised flight control system and reduced mass. Obselete pieces have been replaced with 19 new generation devices and the spacecraft's total mass has been reduced by 70 kgs.

       The Soyuz will become the main manned space transportation system to the ISS  with the phasing out of the space shuttle from next month.

     Soon after the night lift off it took eight minutes to reach the orbit around the earth and will dock with the ISS on Thursday. Interestingly, this will be the last crew to receive the space shuttle ``Atlantis,'' at the space station on July 10 on its final mission which will conclude the story of the space shuttle. Fossum called the shuttle a truck while he described the Soyuz as a ship for people.

      Volkov in a pre launch interview at Baikonor said that the Soyuz `` is like a home. It is made for you. You will love this spaceship.''

      BMM watched the Soyuz launch on Russia TV and sure it was an awesome and terrific sight. A mighty rocket with the three spacemen blasted off with a thunder into the night sky over Baikonor and almost lit it up. BMM has downloaded the video. It has two other videos----one showing the rocket being brought to the launch pad--the Gagarin launch pad--and the other one which describes the life of the three cosmonauts at Baikonor before launch. 

      Fantastic footages and spacebuffs like BMM can watch them again and again.



Monday, June 6, 2011

Would like to read it again and again

     On February 1,2003, at about 8 p.m. `Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)''  left office--The Times of India--in Mumbai and was returning home

     BMM was eager to get back early and follow the TV coverage of space shuttle Columbia landing at the Kennedy Space Centre which was expected to take place in the next few hours  This flight was of special significance to many of us in India because among the seven crew members was Kalpana Chawla, whom BMM had interviewed after her first flight in November 1997. The story hit page one.

     No sooner BMM got home, it's wife, Usha broke the news that Columbia had lost contact with the mission control centre at Houston. She said that everyone was prepared for the worst. And their apprehensions proved true. Kalpana was no more. Our daughter, Rimanika, was not at home at that moment---being a Saturday she had gone out to meet her friends.

     BMM had a quick dinner and rushed back to the office  Usha told BMM that when Rimanika came home and was informed about what had happened to Kalpana and her crew mates she cried uncontrallably that night.

      While helping with the coverage of the disaster, one thing struck BMM---would it have been too late to execute a rescue mission and save the crew members?  If they had known about the tile damage earlier could they have not docked with the International Space Station?  These were some of the stray thoughts which entered BMM's mind.

       Now, we have the possibility of such a rescue scenario in a super science fiction book called ``Launch On Need,'' written by a space buff Daniel Guiteras. BMM read the book slowly,  grasped every detail because it did not want the book to finish!

        To recap the events briefly in this book, space shuttle Columbia and its crew have been flying for less than a day unaware for sometime that a large piece of the shuttle's external tank foam struck Columbia's left wing just 81.9 seconds after lift off. Under these circumstances the spacecraft will not survive the fiery re entry. A Nasa launch imaging expert, Ken Brown, e mails the info to his friend, John Stangley, a former CNN correspondent. This becomes a major scoop, for the journalist--being a journalist BMM knows what it means to receive such a tip off. Indeed, it happens once in a life time in one's career as a journalist.

        Nasa debates the seriousness of the issue, holds meetings with its experts and finally decides to embark on what is indeed the riskiest and perhaps the most high profile space mission---rescuing the Columbia crew with another shuttle, Atlantis which also suffers a tile damage.

       Reading chapter after chapter about how Nasa planned the mission and how it was finally implemented, it is indeed really impossible to believe that the book is a work of science fiction. It is the result of hard work---Guiteras has done a lot of research before writing the book and studied every minute detail of the space shuttle. Thus it gives an impression that it is by no means a work of fiction, but an actual space drama which has been recounted in a way which sustains the readers' interest and attention from the beginning to the end. Congrats Daniel. Certainly, BMM will be reading it again.

       Apart from the book describing the rescue attempt, it also provides a lot of data about the shuttle itself which spacefbuffs like BMM found very interesting. Coincidentally, it read the book when Atlantis is on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Centre getting ready for its final mission possibly on July 8.

       What surprises BMM is that an organisation like Nasa has never seriously thought of a rescue attempt in space. For example, even if by chance the Apollo astronauts had got stranded on the surface of the moon for some reason or the other--the main possibility being the failure of the ascent stage of the lunar module to lift off--there was no rescue plan which could have been activated. What is worse, even an obit had been prepared about the astronauts who have got stuck on the moon. Why should this be so?

        Anything can happen in space and manned missions are risky. Considering this space agencies all over the world must prepare a rescue mission. ``Launch On Need,'' emphasises the importance of a rescue exercise and space organisations have to take this book seriously and view it as a sort of a guide rather than a bed time fiction. 

       BMM followed the first launch of Columbia on April 12,1981 on the radio and TV. Over the years it has felt an empathy towards this particular shuttle!  So, when the book concluded with the damaged shuttle being destroyed by a navy missile, BMM could not help wiping a tear.

       All in all a super book which spacebuffs like BMM will treasure. Be sure BMM will read it again and it will be very soon. We are looking forward to the larger e version of the book.

       Once again congrats Daniel. More power to your pen.





Saturday, June 4, 2011

Denmark zooms into space

       Friday June 3 approx 8 p.m. (IST):  A historic moment for Denmark.

       On this day Denmark rocketed into space with 9.5 meters long rocket called Heat-1X Tycho Brahe weighing more than 2000 kgs..

       According to The Copenhagen Post, the achievement, preceded by a few setbacks earlier--inevitable in the space business---was the result of the hard work of two amateur rocketeers having a passion for space exploration, Peter Madsen and Kristian von Bengtson.

       The rocket lifted off with a thunder from a sea platform made by the amateurs called Sputnik. Taking into consideration the safety requirements which is extremely important in a space mission, Sputnik was positioned in the Baltic Sea, off the east coast of the Danish island of Bornholm, according to The Post.

        Taking off from the sea platform the rocket flew higher and higher finally attaining an altitude of 2.8 kms. In the next flight, the rocket will go to a higher altitude, the ultimate aim being to launch a manned mission reaching a height of 100 kms.

        The mission is backed by an organisation called Copenhagen Suborbitals which operate on donations and donations. Its mission is to launch a manned flight into space in private-built rockets.

        We wish them all the very best and Godspeed.          


Friday, June 3, 2011

Kalam's age old dream


         Year 2025:  It promises to be a great and historic year for India: the reason: the first Indian will walk on the surface of the moon.

         Ten years later: 2035:  It promises to be another great and historic year for India: the reason: the first Indian will walk on the surface of Mars.

         All this will happen if Abdul Kalam's age-old dream which he keeps mentioning to children frequently materialises. The latest opportunity came to him on June 1 at the Isro hq in Bangalore while releasing a book about rocketry written by S.K.Das, which was published in December 2010. In an interaction with kids who came for the function he said: ``I believe an Indian astronaut will walk on the moon by 2025 and Mars by 2035.'' He asked Isro to make an effort towards this direction.

         Yes, such a declaration will excite and thrill kids, but the question is will such missions ever take place? Is Kalam constantly making such statements only to trigger excitement? This is a feeling being expressed by a section of the Indian space community.

         But, at the same time one must remember that Kalam in November 2004 had recommended that India land on the moon during the Chandrayaan-1 mission and the plan was successfully implemented on the night of November 14,2008 with the Moon Impact Probe (MIP) which discovered water and carbon diaxide on the moon. This was an unmanned flight.

         So, let us not completely dismiss the scenario of an Indian on the moon and Mars as something which cannot take place. It perhaps may happen considering there is an Asian space race with both China and Japan planning atleast a manned lunar landing. In this highly competitive scenario the question is can India afford to lag behind? No it cannot, and India has the capability to embark on such ambitions projects. Unfortunately such programmes get bogged down because of slow procedures, red tapism and bureaucracy..

        However, it needs to be noted that India has yet to give a formal go ahead for a manned mission in the low earth orbit. Again the rocket for this flight--the Geo Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV)--is not yet ready and is facing a host of problems. With this background ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)'' wonders how India can embark on human mission to the moon even in 2025?  There is no road map for a human mission at all as it exists in Japan and China.

         Again with regards to an Indian manned mission to Mars, perhaps Kalam is unaware that the plan for even an unmanned flight to the Red Planet has yet to be firmed up. So with what confidence can he say that an Indian will be on Mars in 2035? 

        Yes we share Kalam's dream and vision for such a mission.

         And we hope the dream turns into a reality.