A Touch Of Heroism
he launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 marked the beginning of space exploration. At that time, there was stiff competition between the two power blocs, namely, the USSR and the U.S. in matters of space as in many other areas. Who would reach higher and earlier? - This seemed to be the big question. Soon after the Sputnik, came the first manned space flight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961. It lasted for only 108 minutes, yet it made history. Eight years later in 1969, man set foot on the moon. Each space event then was big news. But now, all this is history. Today space flights have become so common that they escape notice. They seem to attract no special attention except when things go awry.
Since the initial manned space flights, human presence in space has become more purposeful, frequent and prolonged. Man’s role in space is a combination of experimenter, observer and analyser. Compared to the early years, the demands of space flight on today’s astronauts have become somewhat less rigorous. Any normal healthy person can now aspire to fly. If one has money to spare, to the tune of 10 million U.S. dollars, one can be a space tourist, too!
However, when undertaking a space flight, there are several environmental features that come into play, which necessitate special selection of astronauts. For instance, the space capsule has to be lifted from a state of rest on the ground with gigantic rocket boosters and accelerated to a speed of nearly 8 km/second within a few minutes in order to propel it into orbit. This results in high acceleration (rate of change of speed), which creates a sensation of increase in our body weight. This is known as the g-force effect. For millions of years, the human body has been conditioned by the earth’s gravity, which causes our usual feeling of weight. Our heart has to continuously ensure that blood reaches all parts of the body. Any disruption of blood flow to the brain for longer than four minutes can cause irreversible damage. Under conditions of high g-forces during the ascent, the heart has to pump harder to ensure that the brain gets a continuous supply of blood. Breathing also becomes difficult. The eyeballs change shape and vision becomes distorted. Similarly the skeletal structure experiences higher than usual loads. We are put in a human centrifuge and whirled around to assess our tolerance to high g-forces. In order to alleviate the high g-effect during ascent, astronauts lie on their back perpendicular to the direction of take-off with their knees bent on a seat that follows the contour of the back. This has been established as being the optimal posture to tackle the high g-force.
Weightlessness or zero-g cannot be simulated on the ground for a lengthy period. At best, an airplane doing a zero-g dive can create weightlessness for 10-15 seconds at a time. Such manoeuvres done successively can give the trainee-astronaut brief spells of weightlessness. This can give us a taste of what awaits us in orbit. Continued exposure to weightlessness has several other physiological effects also. For example, bones lose calcium and, therefore, their strength. Muscles lose strength because they have no load to work against. Any muscle not put to work for a long time loses much of its strength. These effects of weightlessness on bones and muscles can be neutralised to a great extent by providing appropriate equipment inside the space capsule for astronauts to exercise. Ordinary exercises like running, jumping or weight training cannot work because these depend on gravity as a necessary condition. So for exercising in space special resistance equipment has been devised.
The psychological environment in space is more severe than one would imagine. To begin with, there is the question of isolation. The astronaut in space is, after all, an ordinary human being. He or she is acutely aware of the distance from near and dear ones. Besides, the awareness of risk always lurks. Should anything go wrong, return home is doubtful. This sets up a sense of isolation in the minds of the astronauts, which may affect their normal working. Also, the space available inside the capsule for seven to eight astronauts is severely limited. Human beings require physical space as well as psychological space. In other words, everyone desires and needs privacy. Privacy is at a premium in a space capsule. This sense of confinement can also affect the working of the astronaut’s mind and body. The sole purpose of elaborate psychological evaluation is to detect even the mildest trace of predisposition towards isolation and confinement, which can upset the teamwork of the entire crew. If one of the crew develops unfavourable responses towards these conditions, that member may become a liability to the others and, what is more, may put the entire crew and the mission in jeopardy.
In the 1970s, the U.S. developed the Space Shuttle fleet. The space vehicle was called the Shuttle because a great part of it was reusable. The Shuttle (like Challenger, Columbia, etc.) carrying half a dozen astronauts and equipment could stay a few days in the earth’s orbit and return home after the mission is fulfilled. Afterwards, it is ready for another flight. In the beginning, the Shuttles were available for launching commercial communication satellites. In the mid-1970s, India was planning the first generation series of INSAT-1 communication satellites. It was decided to have some of the INSAT-1 series of satellites, namely 1-C and 1-D, launched by the Space Shuttle. There was an offer from the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) in the U.S. that the owner of the satellite could send an astronaut along with the satellite. His designation would be that of Payload Specialist. The role of the Payload Specialist was that of an adviser-cum-observer for the communication satellite. He could also conduct scientific experiments while in orbit for his sponsoring nation.
Subsequently, it was announced in Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) circles in 1984 that the INSAT 1-C and 1-D satellites to be launched by the Space Shuttle would need Payload Specialists. There was a call for volunteers with science/engineering qualifications, and health and fitness conforming to “NASA Class III Medical Standards for Payload Specialists?
What had been, until then, only a news item that I had followed with a distant interest now seemed accessible, worth a try at least! That is how I submitted myself as a volunteer for space flight. I make none of the usual claims that it had been a childhood dream to experience a space flight. Until this offer from NASA and its acceptance by ISRO, space flight was not even in the realm of possibility for me. Now, a possibility offered itself. I gather that there were some 400 volunteers for the job. Many volunteers were eliminated after going through the medical records kept by the Medical Service of ISRO, and then by tests of increasing severity. At each stage, a shortlisted group was sent on to the next level of examination. Finally, about 30 persons were asked to spend a week for the Phase II medical screening in the Institute of Aviation Medicine (IAM) of the Indian Air Force in Bangalore. I distinctly recall my anxiety during the silence between one level of testing and the call for the next.
The seven of us left after this phase of screening were called for the final review by a Selection Board chaired by Prof. U.R. Rao, the then Chairman of ISRO. The Board also included, among others, Rakesh Sharma, the first and only Indian Cosmonaut (Astronaut) who had flown earlier in a Soviet space capsule, and one NASA Astronaut, Paul Weitz. Until the review by this Board, we were all only a list of nameless identification numbers. Now for the first time in months, we got back our normal identity. The first question by way of putting me at ease was: “Why are you in this??My answer was, “Thrill, excitement and adventure.?But I also said to myself, “To let me have something to tell my grandchildren.? Anyway, a few days later I was informed that I was one of the two selected for further screening at NASA. The other person was N.C. Bhat from the ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC), Bangalore. I was then with the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Trivandrum. Shortly afterwards, the two of us were put through the final medical and psychological evaluation at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), NASA, in Houston, Texas.
Medical tests at JSC were virtually a repeat of what was done in India. But one of them was certainly new, called the Personal Rescue System (PRS). It is a contingency system to transfer the crew from a disabled Shuttle orbiter to a rescue vehicle. One may sometimes have to spend hours inside the PRS awaiting rescue. For this test, I was asked to get into a black flexible bag, just big enough for me to squat in for an undisclosed duration. It was zipped up from outside and the lights went out. I could hear the thick door of the soundproof room shut. There was a supply of fresh air into the bag. Though there was a two-way communication system in the bag, I was told that the people outside would not speak to me as long as 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.
Shortly after our return to India, NASA informed ISRO that Bhat and I were acceptable. Then came further training in IAM, Bangalore, where we spent about eight months in 1985-86. This period was filled with regular orientation regimen, exercises, and also air experience in a jet trainer over the city of Bangalore. Air experience consisted of flights with an IAF pilot at the controls with the trainee-astronaut sitting by his side. We went through various exciting trick-flying manoeuvres known as steep turns, wing-overs, rolls, barrel rolls, zero-g dives, etc. Both of us went through this training successfully and were ready for the further four-month training at JSC, primarily concerned with living in the Shuttle and doing the daily chores inside the Shuttle. But this was not to be! While our flight was to be in September 1986, the Shuttle, Challenger, met with a disastrous end 72 seconds after take-off on 28 January, 1986, killing seven astronauts. Soon afterwards, a Presidential Inquiry Commission was set up to investigate this accident. We were reassigned to our normal duties in ISRO. The investigation took nearly four years. NASA had, by then, changed its policy which made the Shuttle unavailable for the launch of commercial satellites. Thus as steeply as my hope of space travel had soared, it made a nosedive on that fateful day in January 1986. And here I am, a stillborn astronaut!