New Delhi, Nov 22: Jerry M Linenger, former NASA Astronaut who has orbited Earth 2,000 times, held an audience in awe with his experience and tales in space and commended India's space programme as being innovative and one which will have huge spin-offs.
He, however, said bringing back Chandrayaan-1, India's unmanned mission to the moon, will be a ''tough challenge''. Terming the moon mission ''great and fantastic'', Linenger said bringing back the mission would be difficult. It needs to be ensured that all systems are in perfect shape, he added. The occasion was the ongoing HT Leadership Summit, where Linenger last evening spoke about his close brush with death, his isolation and loneliness in space, his feelings when he felt that he was passing through the last moments of his life, and the lessons the world ought to learn from a man who has lived in another orbit.
During what was reported to be one of the most dangerous and dramatic missions in space history, Jerry spent nearly five months aboard the Russian space station 'Mir'. He faced numerous life threatening events, including repeated failure of critical life-support systems, a near collision between the space station and a massive re-supply spacecraft and multiple computer failures that sent the space station tumbling uncontrollably through space.
Later, Linenger addressed a media conference, where he spoke about his keeness to go to the planned mission on Mars in 2020 and what preparations are required in that regard as well as India's space programme.
He said India's maiden unmanned lunar mission Chandrayaan-1 was a good attempt, but the problem would be in its return. Caution needs to be taken that all systems are in perfect shape to ensure its safe landing, which is not always easy.
He described India's space programme as one ''great accomplishment'' and one that will enable the country to leapfrog technolgically. In this sense, the criticism lobbed against it that too much was being spent on the programme by a poor country without an immediate dividends was unjustified.
Linenger said it was commendable to see India's growing role in space.
''I am not underplaying the achievement, but let me tell you that brining back the mission to earth will be dificult,'' he said.
India's first probe to moon landed on the lunar surface on November 14 after riding on Chandrayaan-1, India's first unmanned spacecraft on the moon, travelling nearly 384,000 km in 24 days.
Linenger said bringing back Chandrayaan-1 would pose more technolgical challenges than putting it in the moon's orbit.
''Overcoming it would be a greater success,'' he quipped.
Linenger spoke about how he narrowly survived a raging, smoke-billowing fire that was later described as the most severe blaze ever aboard an orbiting spacecraft. In spite of these challenges, Captain Linenger and his two Russian crewmates accomplished all mission goals -- shuttle docking, space walking, a Soyuz fly around, and all 120 of the United States science experiments. In completing the mission, he logged 50 million miles, the equivalent distance of over 110 roundtrips to the moon, travelling at an average speed of 18,000 miles per hour.
The 53-year-old Astronaut said he welcomed international competition in space, as it will bring different perspectives and benefits from aggressive ambitions being pursued by nations such as technolgical advances and better systems.
He said since he was 14 years of age, he wanted to become an astronaut. He said this was the time when Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut -- an American -- to land on moon, set his feet on the natural satellite.
Lienger spoke about the incredible 'ingenuity' of human mind to adapt when faced with difficulty and may be life and death situations, as he was in when he was in space. The Astronaut said when his oxygen supply failed in space and he was sure that he would die, he said his first thought was, ''Jerry, what a place to die.'' He said before he went on 'Mir' a decade ago, he had a son and his wife was pregnant.
His next thoughts were ''I am leaving you. I have loved you too intensely. But you will never see me again''.
He said he has penned down his thoughts to his son and wife in a book 'Letters from Mir'.
The other famous book Linenger has written is ''Off the Planet'', which has been translated into 12 languages. The book is about his thrilling and precarious experiences in space.
Linengar said once you are out of the orbit of the Earth, one realises the futility of being petty and one looks at the world as one, not as ''an American, or an Indian or a Chinese''.
He said another lesson is love your family, do not be afraid of them. ''Just forget your fears.'' Tell each one of them everyday that you love them immensely.
''When you go to sleep forget everything, all your worries and have a sound sleep,'' Jerry said.
Asked when he was in space, did he feel closer to God, he replied in the affirmative, saying it was clear to me that ''this beautiful universe was his creation.'' ''It was my religion-like experience,'' he said.
He said he also felt close to his father, who must have been in heaven.
On landing after a long sojourn in space, he saw how beautiful his wife, who was heavy with child, ''looked as beautiful as ever'' and what feelings of love he had for his son.
Asked whether he had any ambitions to enter politics, Linenger said he has been made an offer by the Republicans for a ticket and the post of Governor of State, but he turned it down.
He said he had huge commitments and wanted to spend the weekends his family. Besdies, his ambition was to go to Mars.
In 'Mir' he had to be with two Russian astronauts who only spoke their language. One of them was a military engineer and the other an MiG pilot. He himself was a US Navy flight surgeon, who took early retirement. He had learnt Russian before goint to space.
This taught him how important communication was with people with whom one may not have much in common culturally.
When he told his father as a boy that he wanted to become an astronaut, Linenger said he told him that he was crazy and enjoined upon him to join a career in the Navy.
Here are some other highlights about Linenger career.
A naval academy graduate, he holds doctorates in both medicine and research methodology, as well as dual master's degrees in systems management and health policy. He has been awarded three honorary doctorate degrees in science.
Linenger was the first American ever to undock from a space station in a Russian Soyuz capsule and the first American to do a space walk in a Russian spacesuit. At mission completion. Captain Linenger held the endurance record for the longest time in space for an American man.
In 2008, Linenger became the recipient of the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. The medal is given to any person in the Federal service who, by distinguished service, ability, or courage, has personally made a contribution representing substantial progress to the NASA mission.
In his free time, Linenger enjoys competitive triathlons, ocean swim racing, scuba diving, skiing, and kayaking. He presently is a founding member of the advisory council for Circle of Blue, a global freshwater initiative, as well as a space analyst for NBC News.
Jerry now lives back on the planet in northern Michigan with his wife and four children.
Few men achieve their ambition in life. They are regarded as lucky. Luckier still are those who achieve precarious ambitions like being an Astronaut, more so if they remain hale and hearty. They have much to tell the world. Perhaps, men like Linenger are blessed they aim higher and higher. After space, now its Mars.