Retired Wing Commander and Ashoka Chakra recipient cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma flew abroad Soyuz T-11 on April 2, 1984, as a part of the Intercosmos Programme becoming the first Indian to ever reach the space.
This would not be wrong to say that whenever somebody asks us who was the first Indian to reach space? The obvious answer which comes is Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma. We all know the story till this point, what we don’t know is the fact that there was a backup cosmonaut for the same space mission who never got a chance to reach the space.
The lesser-known “unlucky” cosmonaut, I am talking about is the recipient of Kirti Chakra Air Commodore (Retd.) Ravish Malhotra – the man who almost made to space.
The retired air force personnel now stays in Bengaluru and recalls “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.”
Growing up as a boy, Ravish always wanted to serve the Navy but fate had a different plan in store for him. During the selection, he was told that his eyesight wasn’t good enough to join Navy but can join Air Force. And since air force was running out of cadets, he joined Air Force.
Not only this, in the 1971 war, he flew a fighter jet and escaped a close encounter with death. His plane received heavy gunfire from the tanks in the Chamb-Jaurian sector in West Pakistan. “In the cockpit, you hear a lot of thud thud thud. But I was lucky that nothing came through,” he told.
The turning point in his life came when he was offered a golden ticket to travel in space. The main criteria decided by the government to shortlist the perfect candidates were a fit fighter pilot. And this is how, from a pool of 20 pilots, only Ravish and Rakesh were sent to Russia for the mission.
There, they trained for a couple of years and also learned Russian. The reason behind this was that everything ranging from instrumentation to instructions on spacecraft was in the Russian language. The duo also trained in several missions like effects of yoga in space.