Saturday, July 9, 2011

From the pen of the very person who was chosen for a space shuttle mission

        On Friday at 9 p.m. (IST) Nasa's space shuttle, Atlantis, thundered off the launch pad on its final mission marking the end of the 30-year-old space shuttle era.

        Not many are aware that the space shuttle had Indian connections. Two scientists working with Isro, P.Radhakrishnan and N.C.Bhat were chosen by the Indian space agency and Nasa to fly in space shuttle ``Challenger,'' to deploy the Insat 1-C and 1-D communication satellites in September 1986. . But, the much awaited mission did not take off because of the ``Challenger'' disaster on January 28,1986.

        Not only this. An Indian cosmic ray experiment, ``Anuradha,'' flew in space shuttle ``Challenger,'' for a week beginning April  29,1985.

        Who will forget the flights of India-born astronauts, Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams, both of whom have been interviewed by ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM).''

         And the Chandra X-ray observatory named after the world renowed astrophysicist, Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar, was launched by on December 23, 1999, by space shuttle, ``Columbia.''

         So, the shuttle has a lot of Indian connections.

         BMM recalls that during the very first space shuttle flight, (STS-1) ``Columbia,'' on April 12,1981, it with a cousin were hearing the commentary on a radio!  We did not have a TV. Now 30 years later, BMM was glued to Nasa TV for about 12 hours on July 8,2011, watching the live coverage of the ``Atlantis,'' launch.

         On the occasion of the last launch of the space shuttle, ``Atlantis,'' on Friday night, BMM has great pleasure in reproducing a beautiful article written by P.Radhakrishnan, called ``My Flirtation With Space.''


         ``After his flight in a Soviet vehicle in April 1984, during his visit to Trivandrum, I interviewed Rakesh Sharma on behalf of All India Radio. I didn't then have the foggiest idea that I would ever come any close to a space flight myself. It did, therefore, come as a big surprise when later that year ISRO announced its intention to send a Payload Specialist each in the Space Shuttle during the launches of the Indian communication satellites, INSAT-IC and ID. The Payload Specialist's role was to be that of an observer-cum-advisor for the INSAT satellites besides conducting independent experiments on remote sensing, lightning and biomedicine. There was an invitation for volunteers from within ISRO with science and engineering qualification, and health and fitness conforming to `NASA Class 111 Medical Standards for Payload Specialists.' After a series of progressively tougher tests and screening conducted by Institute of Aerospace Medicine of Indian Air Force, Bangalore, (IAM), the initial 400 volunteers were short listed to 7. Out of these, Mr N.C.Bhat of ISRO Satellite Centre, Bangalore,and I of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Trivandrum were selected by a Board that also included as members Rakesh Sharma and Paul Weitz, a NASA astronaut. Bhat and I were to undergo further tests at Johnson Space Centre (JSC), Houstojn, Texas in June 1985. Group Captain Kuldip Rai was to be our flight surgeon.''

``During our stay in JSC, I met Col. Shriver who was to be the commander of our flight on the Challenger, designated as STS-61, and the Saudi Arabian Prince-Astronaut Sultan Abdul Azis who had just then returned from a flight. At that time in JSC there was also a group of Japanese scientists undergoing tests like us. I was excited by the rumour that there would be in our flight the well-known writen, Norman Mailer too. I remember vividly certain other individuals in JSC like Lynn Collins who was the Payload Specialists Co-ordinator. She could instantly put us at ease on our arrival there. There was the Chief Nurse Claudette, so very kind and considerate.''

`` Back in India, after we received confirmation of our acceptance by NASA, Bhat and I started our regular training at IAM, Bangalore that consisted of familiarisation with biomedical experiments, exercises and air experience. This lasted for 8 months. What remained was training at JSC in living and doing day-to-day chores in the Space Cabin which would be for about 4 months just prior to the flight slated for September 1986.''

`` In January 1986, for purposes of familiarisation, we went to Ford Aerospace Communication Corporation, Palo Alto where the satellite INSAT 1 C&D were being built. Then came the Black Day, January 28,1986. 73 seconds into the flight, the Challenger STS-51 L, blew into a ball of fire ending the precious lives of 7 wonderful human beings. One of them was Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher. We saw the tragic event on the TV. Later the same day, we heard a moving speech in the sonorous voice of President Ronald Reagan who said, ``We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and `slipped the surly bonds of earth to `touch the face of God.''

``During our subsequent stay at JSC, though it was stated by NASA authorities that Space Shuttle flights would resume in 6 months. I had a strong presentiment that I had lost for ever my once-in-a-lifetime chance. After a protracted but warranted Presidential Enquiry lasting over 3 years, NASA decided to resume Shuttle flights, but discontinued its practice of launching commercial satellites.''

`` I was looking forward to a space flight for its thrill, excitement and adventure. Besides, I wished to have something to tell my grandchildren. As steeply as my hope of a space flight soared, it made a nosedive on January 28,1986. Now, here I am, a still-born astronaut.''

``In spite of personal frustration, the best pay-off from my brush with space flight was that it gave me a great deal of confidence, a clean bill o health (I was 42 then) and the opportunity to meet astronauts (``The Right Stuff'') such as Rakesh Sharma, Paul Weitz, Shriver, Don Williams, Bonnie Dunbar. I tasted space food and had an exposure to flight conditions like high-g and weightlessness, isolation and confinement. It was good while it lasted, as look at the past thrugh a bridge of 22 years, filling my mind with vivid recollections! If it were not for the Challenger disaster, our flights would have taken place; it would have marked the pinnacle o Indo-US cooperation in space.''

``President Reagen's words still ring in my ears. ``We will continue our quest in space. There will be more Shuttle flights and more Shuttle crews, and more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and journeys continue.'' This truly reflectes the spirit of human adventure and progress.''


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