"What does it feel like going into space?" was the question many of the hundreds of students seated inside the Kondajji Basappa auditorium in Bengaluru had thought of during the interaction with former NASA chief Major General Charles Frank Bolden Jr.
Not many were prepared for the response. "When the famous countdown of 10, 9, 8, 7 begins, you hear the sound of a giant explosion (mimics explosion noise). Those are your thrusters kicking in and within seconds, you lean back and while the first 7 minutes and 45 seconds of the journey are quite comfortable, it is when you are exiting the atmosphere that you feel like there is a gorilla beating your chest, when you are travelling at 18,000 miles per hour," explained Maj. Gen Bolden Jr in a calm, succinct demeanour as he soaked up the adulation of the students of Bharat Scouts and Guides he was addressing in Bengaluru on Wednesday.
The former US Space Shuttle Commander and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator conducted meetings with government officials, academics and students in India as part of the US Department of State's efforts to promote bilateral science and technology partnerships in space exploration. He recently retired from service as the twelfth administrator of NASA during the tenure of former US President Barack Obama and is known for being the first African-American administrator of the famed space research organisation.
But it was in the engaging interaction with the students that Maj. Gen.Bolden Jr. was in his element – talking about space. He has travelled to orbit on four occasions between 1986 and 1994, commanding two of the missions and piloting two others.
He fielded a range of questions from the audience and answered them with crisp responses drawing on his experiences in space exploration.
"What do astronauts eat in space?"
"I ate shrimp but in the future, food can be printed in space using a 3-D printer so when one of you goes on a space mission, you could be eating printed food".
"How does the earth look like from space?"
"During the day, there are no borders or any sign of life that is visible from space. It puts things in perspective for you. In the night, due to the lights, signs of human life is clearly visible".
He even addressed the conspiracy theory that the earth is flat, "It looked round to me!" he quips, showing a picture of the earth he had taken from space.
Maj. Gen Bolden Jr's candid and personal responses resonated with the young audience, who had assembled from Bengaluru and other parts of Karnataka. There was also ample encouragement given to the audience members to study and pursue science and dream about travelling to orbit.
Ahead of the interaction, Maj. Gen Bolden Jr. held a meeting with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman K Sivan. "It was a courtesy call wishing him luck for the upcoming missions including the Chandrayaan II mission. We also discussed updates on the human space flight mission and other collaborations with ISRO,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of the interaction with scouts and guides.
He heralded India's Mars Orbital Mission or Mangalyan for becoming the first nation to reach the Mars orbit in its first attempt. It is currently studying the upper atmosphere of mars in tandem with the US mission MAVEN, which is studying the lower atmosphere of the planet.
He also stressed on the importance of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) as key to space exploration today. "Public-Private Partnerships have resulted in several successful space missions and many space research organisations in the world are exploring possibilities through this," he added.