BISKIT's journey into exploring SPACE as our first concept began with a pivotal moment in 2017, when India's space prowess garnered global attention through ISRO's record breaking "PSLV-C37" mission. I remember noticing, perhaps for the first time, the enduring universal and cultural force of SPACE as the international media's spotlight focused keenly on this unprecedented feat. In that very instance, a mix of pride and amazement surged within, swiftly accompanied by the realisation of a void in awareness of how India arrived at this point in the first place. Here I stood, struck by the thought that while I was familiar with NASA's accomplishments, I was notably deficient, if not entirely unaware, when it came to my own nation's space history. The invisible cloud of pop-culture had unwittingly overshadowed the saga of India’s own journey into the cosmos - at least that was the case in my experience.
Six years ago, this experience sparked BISKIT’s passion to explore SPACE from a fresh and distinct perspective. Now, as ISRO's Chandrayaan 3 makes a historic first-ever landing near the Moon’s south pole on August 23, 2023, I sense that the moment is ripe to revisit the captivating story of Rakesh Sharma’s 1984 mission, which not only got us hooked, but also undeniably acted as the catalyst that fuelled India’s ambitions, propelling it to this significant juncture in its space journey.
This essay explores the broader political, cultural and symbolic context of the historic 1984 mission that propelled Rakesh Sharma, India’s first astronaut, into the cosmos. It also unravels the artworks, design elements and pieces that this mission has inspired for our SPACED OUT collection.
The Story of Rakesh Sharma
The late 20th century witnessed a fierce competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in a race to conquer the final frontier - space. While their rivalry had reached its zenith during the 1960s and early 1970s, with iconic milestones like Yuri Gagarin's historic orbit around Earth in 1961 and the US moon landing in 1969, the Space Race eventually gave way to a spirit of international cooperation, with the Soviets offering an opportunity for other nations to participate in human spaceflight through the ‘Intercosmos’ program.
Against this backdrop of global space history, a pivotal moment occurred in 1984 when India decided to send its first astronaut, Rakesh Sharma, to journey into the cosmos. The country had made significant strides in space research and satellite technology through the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and was at a critical juncture, seeking to bolster its scientific image on the international stage.
On the flip side, amidst the instability of the cold war era, India was facing perhaps one of its most disastrous years in its post-independent history. The Anti-Sikh riots, the Bhopal gas tragedy and an economy grappling with inflation and external debt had left the nation wounded with Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, desperate to get re-elected in the upcoming general elections. Having seen the galvanising effect of space exploration on other nations, she strategically turns towards Indiaʼs then close ally, the Soviet Union, for help. She strikes a deal with the Soviets to send an Indian into space before the elections, and on 3rd April 1984, a soviet rocket carrying Rakesh Sharma, a highly skilled pilot from the Indian Air Force, and two Russian Astronauts leaves Earth.
While there is no concrete evidence to suggest this, the timing of the 1984 mission was arguably political as much as it was scientific - revealing the hopeful, optimistic and grand cultural gesture of power that SPACE offered. By choosing 1984 for the mission, the Indian government could aim to capitalize on the global attention surrounding the commemorative events and showcase India's achievements in space science and technology and foster national pride.
For me, two instances stand out that perfectly capture the cultural significance of this moment:
Rakesh Sharma's primary objectives in the space mission, officially known as "Soyuz T-11," was to conduct scientific experiments related to the fields of bio-medicine and materials science with an emphasis on investigating the effects of microgravity on the human body. As part of this research, he famously became the first human to practice Yoga in space as a way maintain flexibility and muscle strength, helping counteract the effects of prolonged weightlessness on his body. His contributions to these experiments helped expand scientific knowledge and contributed to the global body of research in space exploration. While the practice of yoga was undoubtedly practical, it also held symbolic significance. It demonstrated India's unique approach to human spaceflight, where elements of tradition were thoughtfully integrated into cutting-edge domain of space exploration.
During the mission, several live communications were broadcast, allowing Rakesh Sharma to interact with people on Earth, including officials, scientists, students, and the general public. One of the most notable live communications occurred on April 18, 1984, when he spoke with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. During this exchange, Indira Gandhi asked Sharma how India looked from space, to which he responded with the iconic phrase, "Sare Jahan Se Accha" (Better Than the Entire World). This phrase, taken from a popular patriotic song, became an iconic representation of the mission and the spirit of India's space exploration endeavours. As the first Indian astronaut in space, Sharma's interactions aimed to inspire and educate the public about the space journey and the significance of India's participation in the field of human spaceflight.
While, the successful space mission captured the imagination of the entire nation, tragically, Mrs. Gandhi would be assassinated within eight months, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi would sweep the polls later that year. In the end, its political impact remains uncertain, but what it certainly did was project India’s ambitions as a global power and space-faring nation that left a lasting impact on the collective cultural consciousness - inspiring a new generation of space enthusiasts in the country.
Thirty-nine years later, with multiple successful launches and missions orchestrated by ISRO, including becoming only the fourth space agency to reach Mars, Mr. Sharma still remains the only Indian to travel to space.
For a broader look into India's space history, read our essay - BISKIT’s Journey into SPACE