By Prakash Chandra

This year belongs to astronauts. On January 10, the first class of NASA astronaut trainees selected for the Artemis mission to the Moon graduate from the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. And later this year, the first Indian astronauts to launch from Indian soil will complete their training at Glavkosmos in Russia, in preparation for India’s first manned spaceflight, Gaganyaan. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will shortlist four of these astronaut trainees — all test pilots from the Indian Air Force (IAF) — before choosing the final three ‘gaganauts’ to blast off into space from Sriharikota in 2022.

The first Indian in space, Sqn Ldr Rakesh Sharma, orbited Earth on board the Soviet space station Salyut in 1984 (with his compatriot, Wg Cdr Ravish Malhotra, as standby).

But there were two more astronauts whose names many people may have forgotten: P Radhakrishnan and NC Bhatt, both ISRO scientists, trained by NASA around the same time to fly on the Space Shuttle. But for a tragic twist of fate, one of them would have been the second Indian in space.

“I consider myself a stillborn astronaut,” says Radhakrishnan as he walks down memory lane and rewinds to 1986. In the late 1960s, with the world captivated by the Space Race and Apollo Moonshots, ISRO quietly took its baby steps in rocket launching from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. As India’s space effort progressed from launching sounding rockets to making sophisticated satellites and ever more powerful launch vehicles, it was a matter of time before ISRO thought of sending the first Indian to space.

“After Rakesh Sharma’s historic spaceflight in a Soviet spacecraft, he visited Trivandrum and I interviewed him for All India Radio,” recalls Radhakrishnan. “At that time, I never thought I would ever come any close to a space flight myself.”

As it happened, later that year, ISRO announced its decision to send two Indian astronauts as payload specialists in the Space Shuttle which would launch India’s communication satellites, INSAT 1-C and 1-D.

Kuldip Rai, Bhat, Saudi Astronaut Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, Radhakrishnan

“The payload specialist’s role was that of an observer-cum-adviser for the INSAT satellites, besides conducting independent experiments on remote sensing, lightning and biomedicine.”

Radhakrishnan put up his hand when ISRO started scouting for in-house candidates “with a science or engineering background and health and fitness conforming to NASA Class III Medical Standards for Payload Specialists”.

Over 400 potential candidates went through “a series of progressively tougher medical, stress tolerance and psychological tests” at the Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM), Bangalore, before a list of seven was drawn up. “The medical screening was thorough, from head to foot,” says Radhakrishnan. “We were handed from one medical speciality to another — the only specialist who did not look me over was a gynaecologist.” There were stress tolerance tests which included working the treadmill at 50° C for 40 minutes and at a pressure of about 40% of normal atmospheric pressure. “We were put in various contraptions reminiscent of medieval torture chambers for spinning, rolling and centrifuging.”

The week-long drills started daily at seven in the morning and lasted till afternoon when they were grilled by psychologists and psychiatrists and asked to fill in “innumerable questionnaires” as part of their psychological evaluation.

Eventually, a selection board that included Wg Cdr Sharma and NASA astronaut Paul Weitz picked Radhakrishnan and Bhat to undergo further tests at the JSC in June 1985.

“Until this point, we were all only a list of nameless identification numbers. Now for the first time in months, we got back our normal identity.” One of the tests at JSC involved the Personal Rescue System (PRS) — which would transfer the crew from a disabled shuttle orbiter to a rescue vehicle. “One may have to spend, sometimes hours, inside the PRS awaiting rescue,” explains Radhakrishnan.

“I had to get into a black flexible bag, just big enough to squat in for an undisclosed duration.

It was zipped up from the outside and the lights went out. I could hear the thick door of the sound-proof room shut. There was fresh air supply pumped into the bag which had a two-way communication system. I was told that the people outside would not speak to me while I was inside. But I could call out for help through the microphone any time I felt uncomfortable. With the help of electrodes stuck to my chest, they could continuously monitor my heart rate for any untoward symptom. Any tendency towards claustrophobia would readily reveal itself during this test.”

Af ter clearing the NASA tests, Radhakrishnan and Bhatt returned to India for further training at the IAM. Over the next eight months, they underwent regular orientation exercises and air experience in a jet trainer.

(From Left) Radhakrishnan, Rita Rapp, Nutrition Expert, JSC/NASA, NC Bhat (fellow-astronaut), Gp Captain Kuldip Rai, IAF, Flight Su rgeon

“Air experience consisted of flights with an IAF pilot at the controls doing aerobatics such as steep turns, wing-overs, rolls, barrel rolls, and zero-g dives.” After this phase of training was over, they were ready for a four-month stint at the JSC for the final medical and psychological evaluation. Finally, in January 1986, the astronauts spent time at the Ford Aerospace Communications Corporation in California where the INSAT satellites were being built, before actually living in a Space Shuttle for operational familiarisation.

From then on, it was a long wait to see who would be picked for the mission in November. “But that was not to be,” sighs Radhakrishnan. On January 28, Shuttle Challenger blew up 72 seconds into launch, killing all seven astronauts on board. “Soon after the disaster, NASA said they’d resume Shuttle flights within six months. But the inquiry commission investigating the accident took four years to submit its report. After implementing the design changes stipulated by the commission, NASA took another four years to resume Shuttle flights. By that time, ISRO had decided to launch our INSAT satellites onboard the Ariane launch vehicle of the European Space Agency. And NASA, too, made changes in their policy on commercial satellite launch services — which doused our hopes,” Radhakrishnan says. For the policy change meant NASA no longer offered commercial launches on the Shuttle and foreign payload specialists could no longer fly on it.

Radhakrishnan, who lives a retired life by the sea in Thiruvananthapuram where it all began for India’s space programme, looks forward to Gaganyaan and the new crop of Indian astronauts.

“Human spaceflight is a frightfully expensive undertaking,” he says. “Huge as it may look, the recently approved Rs 10,000 crore is only the tip of the iceberg. Designing and building a man-rated space capsule and the elaborate training facilities take a long time and enormous funding. The preliminary work started about ten years ago and the effort has now acquired a sense of urgency thanks to the government’s announcement of a manned flight by 2021.”

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