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October 30, 2019 Wednesday 10:54:58 AM IST

An Astronaut’s High Power


An aerial view of the land below, soon after an aeroplane becomes airborne, provides a pleasant view for most passengers during flights. The sight of buildings, green trees, flowing rivers, splendid water bodies, lovely hills, serpentine roads and moving automobiles – all in a miniature form, is breath-taking. And, as the plane ascends to the cloudy atmosphere, the diminutive objects vanish from the view.

But how does the Earth look like if you happen to peep from the window of a space vehicle that travels beyond the confines of the planet? The question was posed to Bernard A.Harris Junior, an astronaut, during one of the rare opportunities I got to interact with him during a meeting a few years ago.

The astronaut had functioned as a Mission Specialist on NASA space shuttle Columbia in 1993 and as Payload Commander in Discovery in 1995. He had covered more than 7 million miles during two space journeys extending 430 hours.He flew on board Columbia for 10 days (April-May 1993).  In the space mission in February, 1995, he walked in space, becoming the first African-American to do so.

His eyes widened as he described the scene outside the space vehicle. Of course, it has to be an incredible view, beyond what ordinary people could visualise. He could see sunrise and sunset within 45 minutes from the vehicle where outside temperatures changed from minus 10 to 60 degrees centigrade within minutes. Watching sunrise and sunset, happening at two portions of the Earth at the same time, was another unique spectacular view for him.

Apart from the magnificent view that he had, his outlook on the universe was what caught my attention in particular. There must be some higher power – that was what he felt, after having had witnessed the heavenly spectacle of the galaxy out in the space.His response echoed Sankara’s philosophy of ‘Brahma satyamjaganmithya’(the absolute alone is real: the world is a phenomenal appearance), enunciated in Vivekachudamani.

Probably, it summarised his opinion on the entire range of space missions that different countries undertake even as new ones are exploring the possibility of finding signs of life in distant planetary systems.

He did offer clues to the spiritual affinity of his vision. He hailed from a broken family. He attributed his success to his mother who brought him up as a single parent, after she had to go through a divorce, when he was a child.

After having a successful career as an astronaut, he tried his hand in venture capital funding. It was another challenging occupation, identifying the right entrepreneur, but certainly not as exciting as looking at celestial bodies, wondering whether life prevailed at unfathomed distances out in the space. 

R .Ramabhadran Pillai

The writer is Editor of Pallikkutam. He can be reached at

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