Hugs & Rocket Science

In the dark moments of Sep 6-7, 2019, when earth went about its axis, millions of space enthusiasts from India sat up to watch ‘Vikram’ make a lunar landing after separating from orbiter Chandrayaan 2.

3.84 lac kms later, just 2.1 kilometres short of its target, the lander deviated from course. An in-depth analysis will surely follow into the cause and outcome.

In space travel, 2 kms is an infinitesimal denomination. But then rocket science is an exact science that hinges on such fine mensurations.

A bigger lesson dawned on earthlings the next morning when PM Narendra Modi was received by ISRO Chairman K Sivan for the ‘hot wash-up’.

Both come from humble origins. Definitely no silver spoons between them. Both surely hadn’t slept much for days: about 2-3 hrs over the preceding night would be a reasonable guess. Under the circumstances, it is easy to lose patience. Setbacks like this one can overwhelm ‘hoomans’ & bring about strange emotions.

Such moments also reveal character.

I am not a fanboy or ‘bhakt’. But Sivan’s weak moment, the PM’s warm hug, arms wrapped comfortingly around a speechless & sobbing Sivan – that grace truly reflects Indian culture. It’s also a sparkling example of leadership in the the face of setbacks.

In the next few months, it is this element of leadership and hand-holding that will put an ‘Indonaut’ in space, 35 yrs after cosmonaut Rakesh ‘Ricky’ Sharma broke free of ‘mental gravity’ on Soyuz T-11.

I narrate two examples below where I saw brief glimpses of 24-carat leadership in my short voyage of half a century on earth. I am sure you have yours.

In 1985, inspired by Ricky Sharma, I applied & got through the National Defence Academy (NDA). For my parents, much like K Sivan, NDA was rocket science. They had meagre resources that couldn’t envision such big dreams, let alone fund it. Entry to NDA meant a way of life, way beyond our capacity. And I had just made it through with a few text books, their loving support, and the midnight oil.

So when I returned from NDA after one month, tendering my unwillingness to continue with training, their world should’ve fallen apart, right?

Maybe it almost did. Only I never came to know about it.

Our neighbours, relatives & friends unanimously slammed their decision to remain supportive of my blundering ways. I had just thrown a career with nothing to fall back on.

The same warm hug received me back home. I didn’t weep; I was too stupid. My dad & mom surely did, behind my back. They stood steadfast behind my pull out. Dad took a rare few days off to put me back into the same college I had grandly exited a few months ago. Unabashedly bull-headed that he was, requesting ‘Princy’ Prof Ramanathan to “please help my son” must have laid a boulder across his chest.

Princy welcomed me back middle of term. Such magnanimity was unheard-of in the educational system those days. Usual norm was to pitt seats against money & watch parents with meagre resources – and their offsprings with cavalier attitude  – twitch & shudder.

Through that episode, I grew as a person. Within a year, I launched a ‘counterattack’ & was back at Naval Academy, my dreams of becoming an aviator, possibly another Rakesh Sharma, an inch closer to reality that it was ever before.

15 years later, I got somewhere there. No, not outer space, not even outside India, but among the few test pilots India nurtures in her stable – the Air Force Test Pilots School (AFTPS). Today, if not a spacecraft, I have the privilege of being in the same Google group as ‘Ricky’ Sharma. Ricky, as many test crew I know, is as humble as they come. I often benchmark my reactions to events with people like him.

Humility has a grace the vastness of space reveals, if we choose to reflect.

Example 2 interleaves the first example. It was one of the lowest low points in my life. My flying career was shipwrecked even before it took wings. I faced the prospect of never flying again, with just 250 hours under my belt, less than 3 months into my flying career.

Two people, both leaders of some repute & influence, came into my life.

One told me “I told you so. You are screwed. Look for another job”.

Another one, my Commanding Officer, told me “All is not lost. It’s not over till we give up. Let’s do this together. We’ll fix this”.

I would’ve never seen the main gate of Air Force Test Pilots School had I succumbed to negative strokes.

Life is no rocket science. There are simple solutions to every complex issue. Computing is for machines. Humans must have heart. And soul. And empathy.

Like astronomy, the darkest moments can sometimes reveal the brightest stars. And they exist in our offices, our homes, all around us. If only we would pay heed and listen, maybe hug sometimes.

There’s a reason why Rakesh Sharma when asked by PM Indira Gandhi in 1984 how India looked from space said “saare jahan se achha” (Hindi for ‘top of the world’).

We have our hearts in the right, soft place, even if the moon-lander be a few metres off.

Thank you, K Sivan & team. Thank you, PM Modi. We shall overcome.

Houston, we don’t have a problem.


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at Pictures from ISRO.

15 thoughts on “Hugs & Rocket Science

  1. Beautiful ode to the poignant moments that the nation went through on the morning of 07 Sep 19. Such moments of missing a historic landmark by the skin of our teeth only strengthen our resolve to land on the moon and other places in the universe. It’s just a matter of time, tenacity & perseverance – qualities which have been amply displayed in our repeated forays into space !!

  2. Emotional and inspiring article KPS. Yes humans are supposed to be different. Success and failure are part of same coin. Move on with more grit and determination

  3. I didnt know the NDA bit but just remember the boy from amchi who was always ready with a ‘ fight doonga’ when pushed to a corner by the ‘ un sullied’ amongst our batch !! :).
    Nicely put KPS. With a fine endline.

  4. As always, Well penned, Sanjeev! As I sat up watching those anxious moments, one thought shone through…the next moonlander ex Chandrayan 3 will bump into a moondust laden, but upright Vikram for sure!

  5. Yes.
    An awesome ‘gesture’. The hug conveyed much more than what could’ve been said.

    Very well conveyed KPS. Thanks.

  6. ….. the darkest moments can sometimes reveal the brightest stars…

    So true
    Very well said Sir.
    May God be with you in all your endeavours…

  7. So well written as always sir…………your piece captures the essence of a million discussions that ensued………..Indeed a sterling display ‘responsibility’ and ‘tenacity’………and of ‘leadership’ that will nurture achievements………..Hats off to Team ISRO for leapfrogging India each time…….keep up the spirit. Glad the shutterbugs brought to us these moments and took the nation away from Tihar and 370……into the deeper and softer realms of the human heart and human touch. Jai Hind

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