(This story was first published on 31 August 2018. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark the birth anniversary of the first Indian in space – Rakesh Sharma.)
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
The War Veteran
Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian in space, is a household name in India. But unknown to many, another Indian air force pilot was trained for India’s space mission 1984.
Air Commodore (Retd) Ravish Malhotra was the backup astronaut for the mission. He’s the man who almost made it to space.
“We both knew, in the beginning, that there were two of us. Only one is going to space and the other one is going to stay back. Nevertheless, it was an experience no other Indian other than Ricky (Rakesh Sharma) and I had,” said Malhotra, who is now spending his retired life in Bengaluru.
Considered a hero in air force circles, Malhotra’s teenage dreams lay not in the clouds, but in the depth of the ocean. He was, after all, always interested in serving the navy.
“For some reason, I wanted to join the navy. When I went for the selection, they said my eyesight was not good enough for the navy, but good enough for the air force. They were running short of air force cadets. So, I said alright and that’s how I joined the air force and the fighter stream,” he said.
During his career as a fighter pilot, he fought in the 1971 Indo-Pak war and had a close call as well. “We were attacking some tanks in Chamb-Jaurian sector in West Pakistan, when there was heavy anti-aircraft gunfire against my plane. In the cockpit, you hear a lot of thud thud thud. But I was lucky, that nothing came through,” he said.
The Offer to Be an Astronaut
After the war, destiny knocked on his doors once again, this time with an offer of space travel. A decision was made by the government to send pilots to Russia for training. The criteria for selection mandated a fighter pilot who was physically fit.
From a group of 20 pilots, four were selected to go to Russia. Following further medical tests in Russia, Rakesh Sharma and Ravish Malhotra were selected.
Then began the training that lasted two years. “We had to learn Russian. Because from instrumentation to marking on the spacecraft, everything was in Russian,” he recalled.
The two pilots were trained to undertake several missions in space, one which included testing the effects of yoga in space.
Halfway through the training, a call was taken in New Delhi that Rakesh Sharma will be in the main team while Ravish Malhotra will be in the backup team. “I was disappointed, but you accept it and move on with the mission,” says Malhotra.
India Must Send Man to Space, Again
Back in India, the two men received a heroes’ welcome and went around the country meeting people.
Years later, Malhotra feels there is no reason India should not send a man to space. “If the government has decided, yes, we are going to do it and Prime Minister Modi has taken that call, there is no reason why we should not be able to do it. Because I am sure we have the technology,” he said.