Patience In The Trenches

on Monday, May 25, 2009


SHOMA CHAUDHURY, Executive Editor

IF ANYONE had cared to look, the makings of ‘the Rahul factor’ — the new phenomenon on the political landscape that everyone is now agog about — was always there in the making. At its core stands a dignified young man — quiet, thoughtful, measured. A redeeming pool of reason in the noisy indecencies of Indian politics. A man who has taken his time to explore his relationship with power and slowly, almost imperceptibly, transformed the meaning of dynasty. A man whose public utterances mix refreshing candour with an almost academic nuance. A man — unusual anywhere in history — not visibly hungry for personal power; not willing to catalyse it at any cost. If Indians were searching for their Obama — a figure capable of changing the axis of contemporary political conversation — he is here. Not in the symbolic shape of someone overthrowing the oppression of centuries, but (in the curious inversions often common to India) in the shape of a privileged man who has used his privilege to inject a new seriousness into the debased and infantilised public discourse in India.

With the Congress striding into its most significant victory in two decades, suddenly everyone is agreed — Rahul Gandhi is the new elixir of Indian politics. His admirers — across social strata and geographic lines — are totting up his impacts. A high wind of approval is swirling around him. He was the party’s key campaigner; a lot of the victory is his. (The Congress won 75 of the 120 seats where he campaigned.) But Rahul looks intriguingly unmoved by the wind. Happy, but a little bemused, a little outside of himself, as if he understands that the real story lies elsewhere. Understands that true excellence always gathers in slow accretions. This understanding — this dignity and restraint — is key to ‘the Rahul factor’ more than any psephological calculation.

In fact, when everyone is fĂȘting his victory, it is much more revealing to remember how Rahul handled his first taste of defeat. In 2007, he was injected into the Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly election to revive the Congress’ comatose fortune. This was old-style politics. He was to be the magic potion: one shot of him and a forgetful people would put the party back in power. Instead, the Congress got a humiliating 22 out of 402 seats, and Mayawati shot to 206. The knives were out in an instant. He lacks charisma, the media clucked knowingly. This Gandhi’s a dud, the party said darkly. Yuvraj, yuvraj, his opponents taunted gleefully. “This failure really churned him,” says a young Congress politician from UP.

Rahul could have retreated into the ivory tower of his birth. Instead, while the world dissected him rudely, he courageously began to re-examine what it means to be a Gandhi in contemporary India. In March 2008 — as Mayawati, fresh on the wings of victory, journeyed away from the common man towards rarer and rarer worlds of luxury — he, fresh out of failure, hit the dusty road, meeting small groups of people behind closed doors, out of the eye of the media, asking questions. Tribals, farmers, schoolchildren, fisherfolk, dalits. He went to Orissa and Chhattisgarh, to Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, to UP and Karnataka. Once again, the media mocked him, sneering at his ‘Discover India’ trips, booing his desire for research. (TEHELKA, on the other hand, put Rahul on its cover, calling him “The Long Distance Gambler” exactly a year ago.)

And slowly, as he listened, Rahul’s understanding changed. The difference in Rahul 2007 and Rahul 2009 is that his rhetoric is no longer trading emptily on the Gandhi name, it is no longer about what his father and grandmother and great-grandfather did for this country. He is not asking for votes in the name of the past: he is articulating a new future.

Yet, ironically, it is the name that has made all of this possible. Rahul understands the nature of power. Wisely, instead of repudiating his legacy, he has turned it into the most positive instrument he has. He has wielded dynasty to strengthen democracy. He has used the Gandhi name to open doors that no one else in his party could have. In the process, he has leached it of all negative accusation. Everywhere Rahul goes, he tells the young, “I am the product of an unfair, closed world. I want to use my unfair advantage to prise the world open for you.”

And he has. In an innovative move geared to revive the dead old party root upwards, he hired a firm run by JM Lyngdoh and KJ Rao — former election commissioners and men of impeccable reputation — to run intra-party elections for the Youth Congress and the party’s student body, the NSUI. In the recruitment drives preceding these elections, threeand- a-half lakh new members have been signed on in Punjab; more than six lakhs in Gujarat. Sixty-five thousand new student members in Uttarakhand. Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry are next. Oxygen is coursing through the party.

“You get a true measure of Rahul if you ask the bright young people around him why they have given up brilliant futures to work in his core team,” says Lyngdoh. “As for intra-party elections overseen by an independent body, why has no party tried this before in 62 years? Every party should follow this now. It will strengthen the roots of democracy in India.” Says Rao, “We told Rahul people with criminal records should not be allowed to stand for party posts. He agreed immediately. He has also supported independent audits and complete transparency. What this means is that people doing actual grassroot work now have a chance to get elected into positions of power.”

The Congress has had unexpected victories in Rajasthan — 20 out of 25 seats; Gujarat — 11 out of 26 seats; Uttarakhand — all 5 seats; Madhya Pradesh — 12 out of 29 seats; Punjab — 8 out of 13 seats; Andhra Pradesh — 33 out of 42 seats. And finally, UP — 21 out of 80 seats. All of these successes are being laid at Rahul’s door. But that would be an exaggeration. The Congress wave this election is an aggregation of many things, primary among them people’s gratitude for the minimum decencies of Manmohan Singh, Sonia and Rahul, the NREGA, the RTI, the loan waiver for farmers, the stress on inclusive governance, and the clumsy mistakes of Congress’ political opponents.

UP, in particular, is almost an accidental victory. Mooted strongly by veteran leader Digvijaya Singh, Rahul’s decision to go it alone in UP without the Samajwadi Party (SP) will probably prove epochal in the long term. But this election, though the Congress has won many seats it has not won since Emergency and the tidal wave of sympathy post Indira Gandhi’s assassination, most of the victories have been powered by the Opposition. As one Congress leader from UP puts it, “People were fed up of the ‘Bunty-Babli’ politics of Mulayam and Mayawati. Rahul’s clean, inclusive image became a kind of lightening rod.”

Rahul himself is unlikely to be taken in by the euphoria around him. A stickler for detail and empirical data — the crucial social audit that must go with grand assertions — he will study the statistics. They will tell him that the Congress’ victories in UP have largely been driven by the Muslim vote, alienated from the SP by the Kalyan factor and the Azam Khan fight. They will tell him that a tally of 21 definitely speaks of a “new pro-Congress mood” in UP, but big work remains to be done. They will tell him that Congress has not yet opened its account in Bihar because Nitish Kumar is running a credible government there.

ALL OF THIS will tell him something he already understands deeply: the heady ‘Rahul factor’ is not based on some disembodied Gandhi name or whimsical personal charisma. It is rooted in hard, unglamorous work and the promise of a new kind of politics. This is why, unlike Lalu and Mayawati, Rahul does not seem in danger of falling into the trap of identity cults. Unlike them, he understands the only key to real and lasting power is the work you do for people. It is the dusty road that creates the lightning rods.

On May 16, as the results rolled in, Rahul was not in faraway Delhi. He was in his constituency, thanking people for his victory. As the media crowded around him, expecting the cynical turnabout, asking if he would now take centrestage as PM, or at the very least, as cabinet minister, Rahul reiterated the positions that have made him luminous. “I am committed to building back the party organisation,” he said. More significantly, as brokers and industrialists across the country began to salivate at the imagined benefits of a Manmohan Singhdriven economy minus the Left, Rahul put in a timely wedge: “Progress belongs to everyone,” he said. “We cannot leave huge swathes of India behind. It is the poor who have given us everything, the poor who work in very difficult circumstances.”

Key electoral milestones ahead will tell the real story about the depth of Rahul’s electoral impact. But no one can dispute his psychological impact this election. It is probably giving men like Narendra Modi and Lalu Prasad Yadav some introspective moments. And it might just drive Behenji to a ‘Discover India’ spree herself.

Also read 'The Pilgrim prince' which I had posted in May 2008.

The Humble Tread Of History

HARINDER BAWEJA, Editor, News & Investigations

FOR THE five years that he remained Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh was credited with little. The only things that came his way were invectives — he is weak, he is a selected, not elected PM, he takes directions from the Madam at 10 Janpath. In short, that he is a mere puppet, a rubber stamp, a man who was selected not because he had any great vision or political acumen; but because he lacked the one singular thing: Ambition.

The dutiful doctor, in fact, made a habit of not displaying any stellar traits. He coursed on, content. Content with not saying or doing anything that the Gandhi dynasty may or may not like; content with being the chosen one; never joining the ranks of his own cabinet colleagues who appeared like power brokers and power hustlers.

Hindsight often lends itself to great wisdom and as Verdict 2009 is now being hailed as a victory of the troika, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi stand out as the two leaders who reaped great benefit for the Congress Party. The third (not necessarily in that order) stands tall as the Governance Man. As senior Congressman Kapil Sibal put it, “The Manmohan Singh government’s contribution was huge and so was his persona, his gentlemanliness and statesmanlike demeanour. In contrast, the Advanis and Karats were seen as political animals and power-hungry opportunists.”

The invectives — again on hindsight — seem to have worked. Manmohan has become the only prime minister since 1971 to win a successive victory after serving a five-year term. And suddenly, many in the Congress who have rediscovered the merits of the ‘selected’ Prime Minister are all praise for achievements they never credited him with — till the EVMs threw up the magical numbers.

The mother and son Gandhi duo had, however, invested faith in him throughout — so much so that Manmohan became the only Congressman to have ever been named as the party’s candidate in advance. On earlier occasions, it was perhaps never necessary, as the Gandhi surname always came with the prime ministerial tag firmly in place. In an amazing display of faith, just before the big battle, Sonia Gandhi covered her photograph with her hand as she held up the manifesto, and said: he is our prime ministerial candidate. And so, as contemporary history is now being written, no analysis of the Victory is possible without accolades being sung to the tune of ‘Singh is king’.

“Sonia chose well in 2004 and Manmohan performed well,’’ is the common refrain at 24, Akbar Road, the party headquarter that has come alive with fresh energy. But there is also an inside story; a lesser known secret. For the record, of course, Rahul Gandhi wasted not a second when asked the rather blunt question — Is Manmohan Singh negotiable? — by a select group of 10 journalists, including this reporter, he was interacting with. The answer could have been different. After all, it was an informal session. But, a few hours later came an email in which he chose to put this question on record and the answer read, “From my side, I know — and I do know my mother’s views on this — that he is the best prime ministerial candidate. He is our candidate and we are going to stick by him. Like we did in the nuclear deal.” And now for the inside story. A very close aide of the Gandhi scion also let it be known that the young pilgrim of progress was working to a longterm agenda and was not thinking of the next five years. That was well-known. What was not, was that because of this long-term view, defeat would not have come as an irreparable blow. To quote the aide, “It will not be a big deal.”

This little secret is important to make the point that even within the Congress, no one, senior or junior, had scripted a tally of 206 for the grand old party (taunted alternatively as buddiya Congress and guddiya Congress by Narendra Modi). To the contrary, some were prepared for defeat and that’s why hindsight lends itself to great wisdom, for, the UPA emerged only a whisker away from the 272 figure. But their number shot up to 322 with help from unlikely, unconditional support by UP Chief Minister, Mayawati.

Till a little before the electoral battle began, Manmohan was not seen, by his own party, as being worthy of driving the Congress’ ad campaign. All posters and campaigns championed the trio with the slogan: aam aadmi ke badhte kadam, har kadam par bharat bulandh. It was in stark contrast to the BJP, which positioned its entire campaign around LK Advani and the slogan: mazboot neta, nirnayak sarkar (determined leader, decisive government). The irony is inescapable — the ‘weak’ prime minister is the one who has emerged true to the BJP slogan.

KAPIL SIBAL is not wrong when he says that Advani and Modi contributed to Manmohan’s victory by running a negative campaign. Interestingly, BJP insiders agree that Manmohan’s (self) image of sobriety and decency went a long way in the UPA’s victory. If the loyal urban, middle-class voter deserted the BJP and swung towards Manmohan Singh for his record of governance and the Congress’ promise of stability, it was due, again, to Advani’s negative campaign. The Congress trio shone brighter than Advani, Rajnath Singh and Varun Gandhi, who collectively revived toxic memories of Mandal and Mandir-style exclusivist, identity-based politics. Abhishek Singhvi, national spokesperson and Congress strategist, says, “Our troika is unmatched and caught the BJP unawares. The PM symbolised decency in politics, the Congress president symbolised stability and sacrifice. Rahul Gandhi symbolised youth power and the ability to experiment. Their mutual chemistry and DNA made it an unbeatable combination.”

The Slumdog Millionaire tune yielded dividends. “Jai Ho for Bharat, Jai Ho for the poor and Jai Ho for the people of India,” is how Congress general secretary, Digvijay Singh summed up the Congress’ victory. Only last year, the mild-mannered Manmohan had surprised his own colleagues by displaying nerves of steel when pushing the nuclear deal. He risked the fall of his government, and if the electorate did not punish the UPA with anti-incumbency, the credit, in large measure, must go Manmohan Singh’s way.

It would, probably, be accurate to say that the ‘invisible’ Manmohan turned out to be a factor. After his bypass surgery, his doctors wouldn’t allow him more than a dozen-odd public rallies, but Advani ensured that the spotlight stayed firmly on the invisible Manmohan. A senior Congressman says, “The prime minister is not a great orator but he didn’t need to speak. Advani did all the talking on his behalf.” And because the BJP supremo pitched the battle presidential-style, Manmohan stands taller by sheer comparison.

Even by his own colleagues, Manmohan was always seen as a half — half a man, half a politician, half a leader. Adjectives always preceded any introduction, but post-elections, the technocrat-prime minister, economist-prime minister has metamorphosed into a complete person, a complete politician, a man worthy of occupying the top seat in government.

Sonia Gandhi has demonstrated that she did choose well. The chemistry of the troika is evident even now. If Sonia Gandhi’s demeanour is any indication, she respects the man and understands his importance. The two made their first appearance together on May 16 — after it was clear that the mandate had gone squarely in their favour — and both displayed faith and belief in each other in different ways. She waited by the door of her house till he drove in, and walking upto him, congratulated him: “mubarak ho”. The photo-op told a story in itself. It spoke of a partnership the two had cemented. The electorate appears to have voted for this partnership. As a BJP leader remarked, “It’s worked to their advantage that while Sonia spent time on the party, Manmohan had a free hand at governance.”

A neo-confident Manmohan is already visible. Yes, Karunanidhi and Mamata Banerjee could prove difficult allies but there is also the quiet reassurance that they will not come close to playing the role Prakash Karat and his comrades did. But even while he was managing the knives that came out each time he pushed liberalisation, disinvestments or the nuke deal, his government stayed focussed on the common India, on the idea of inclusion. This is how Rahul Gandhi articulated the government’s and the party’s social agenda in his interaction with the 10 journalists: “We have two models before us. One is the private sector, India Shining and a focus on issues that don’t impact the people. The people of India have already demonstrated their silent resilience to this. The other model is growth with distribution, — job guarantee, food in schools and RTI. This is inclusion not just of the poor, but also of the middle classes. That is the idea of the aam aadmi.”

Social inclusion is only one of the many things that has seen Manmohan Singh rise in stature. Verdict 2009 proves that he is not just the Gandhis’ or the Congress’ aam aadmi.˚

Mrs Gandhi And Her Extra God

An Open letter to Mrs Sonia Gandhi, President of Indian National Congress


We all know the clichĂ© that India moves on faith. We love our gods, and it is at their feet that we place all our successes and failures. It is in this department that those who oppose you — and perhaps even some of those who support you — will assert that you have an unfair advantage. Through marriage and masquerade you have acquired all the gods Indian politicians have, while also possessing one you brought along from your faraway home all those aeons ago.

Since we do not oppose you, we are happy that you have an extra god. As you know, India has so many gods only because it has so many problems. (Yes, there are men on the far left and far right who think god is the problem, to be banished or to be rescued — but let these men not detain us, since they’ve failed to detain the electorate.) So we are glad that you have an extra god. One more is always handy. Our gods are playful, multi-faced, philosophical. Often their moralities are slippery to grasp, sheathed as they are in the complexities of karma and dharma, moksha and maya. The one you bring along, the extra one, is more cut and dried. Quite clear about right and wrong, good and bad, sin and virtue, charity and compassion. We — who do not oppose you — welcome that. Amid the material excesses born of our religious abstractions, a little bit of clarity is not a bad thing.

Since we are agreed that you have one god more than the rest of us, it necessarily follows that your responsibilities must be more. It is an easy catechism: privilege and obligation. Of course it is not easily followed. Our playful gods tend to often muddle it up. But your extra one is quite clear on how this must run. In this case, we’d be quite grateful if you heed him, not for your own sake, but that of a few hundred million others.

To begin with, this means that you must banish the thought that your labours are done. Without a doubt you have been stellar in marshalling an army whose officers did not even know which way the battle broke, and whose chief skill lay in swiftly putting the knife into each other. For long years you did this in the face of great personal abuse (inspired perhaps by your extra god). It is not pleasant for a General to be told she does not know how to hold a gun or speak the language of the troops. But you understood, intuitively, that cheap insults can so easily keep the good and the great from the good and the great tasks. You understood that wars, finally, are won not by the size of bullet and the decibel of bugle but by the strength of heart. By simply staying the course, over 13 years, you have unexpectedly changed the battle-lines.

So your toil has been worthy. Your ragged army of 1996 is a renewed one in 2009. In the process you have so cleverly — and beautifully — played out two key precepts of your extra god. Thou shalt not covet, the last of the ten commandments, so artfully spun as an act of renunciation that it sucked out the wind from the sails of your opponents. And Mathew 5:5, which is also Manmohan Singh 2004: blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. And both have been cleansing of the public in unanticipated ways.

Yet let me assert it without any ambiguity. Manmohan 2009 needs you as much as Manmohan 2004. He may be the scythe that clears the weeds, but you are still the arm that wields the scythe. To slice cleanly, the arm and scythe must swing in tandem.

Since I am convinced that your work is far from over, and since I am on Mathew, let me remind you of the exhortation in 10:7. “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.” As one must always do with divine scripture, I could spell out the contemporary burden of every phrase. But that would be fatuous. More than those of us who write of these things, you know best what it is in this calamitous nation to heal the sick and to cast out devils.

Even so — as humble epistle writers must — let me say my piece. Power brings with it a surrounding mist; great power a billowing fog. You may not be blinded by it since you have always lived with great power, but all around you, your partymen will now be tempted to explode in arrogance. They may tend to forget they have merely won a battle. The war, or may I say wars, still rage around us. The bigots — who would divide us — are still at the gates, nursing their wounds, renewing their munitions. They are far from a spent force. They have taken a fourth of our dominions. Be in no doubt that they will storm the walls again, and again. What will serve your legions well then is not hauteur, but what brought them here in the first place — humility, and the steel that is born of it. Across the land we cast our vote against swagger: let it be known, we will bear our ordained abjections but refuse to be hit by misplaced arrogance.

AS I said, the wars are many. Of civilisational ideas, of inhuman deprivations, of lack and want and misery and dying children. In my city — which is also yours, which is the supercilious capital of this limitless nation — at every traffic light, six and seven and eight-year-olds, their skins lacerated, their limbs twisted, rub our car windows for a throwaway rupee. Shining India, booming India, superpower India — these epithets are not just jokes, they are obscenities, when we cannot feed our children, or clothe them, or send them to school. I know you know this: as of now 46 percent of our children below five years of age suffer from malnutrition, with all the physical, mental and emotional impairment that comes from it. A man far greater than you, far greater than any we have known, gave us a talisman which you would do well to thrust down the throat of every person you are now anointing with power. “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.”

It is a curiosity of the hour that while the beacon is the future, the guiding light is still firmly the past. There is nothing that can better unveil to us the path that we must tread than the humane luminosity of the founding fathers.

In this regard, if I may say so, you are well rid of the vanity and bluster of the Left, but you might do well to hold on to some of their concerns. As you should also of the dalit queen and the Yadav overlords. They stand at the head of hapless peoples, even if they do nothing to represent them. The causes are great but the leaders are little. Reject the men; embrace the mission. The task of the reparation of centuries must proceed apace.

Inevitably then, ma’am, all this brings me to the rich. Money is a good thing. And it is no secret that we all love the rich — yes, all your partymen too. But will you please ensure that they do not make of their love a public thing. In India, all elected leaders must speak only for the poor. The rich have their money — and the media — to talk for them. Those who have the opportunity to create wealth — much or more — leave them alone to do so, and place no obstacle in their path. But instruct your worthies to focus on those who have no hope, and bring unto them a sliver.

I must stop. It is ungracious of me to deign to sermonise. That, too, at a moment of your high triumph. Let me then offer some praise. No doubt with the help of your extra god, you have done a fine job of bringing up your son. He has humility, decorum, diligence, and he takes the long and inclusive view. We do not like the idea of dynasty, but we abhor the idea of divisiveness more. In an ideal world we would do away with everything feudal and undemocratic, but for the moment let us concentrate on getting rid of the engines of hatred.

Mercifully, your boy seems more in touch with the soul of India than those who try and barter deities for votes. A man from your party once told me, disparagingly, “Sure, he is wellmeaning. He wants to help old ladies cross the street. It’s no good.” I wonder what he thinks now. Young men who help old ladies cross the street can also grow up to steer nations across rocky roads.

Can I leave you with one last quote (though it’s likely you already know it)? A man far greater than you, far greater than any we have known, once said, “To be in good moral condition requires at least as much training as to be in good physical condition.” This man was called Jawahar, the jewel. His books line your room. As freely as ye have received, freely should you give them on to your newly exuberant flock, and that of your son. The jewel’s words will make their morality robust. After all, it is still on this man’s plinth that we build our dreams.

And yes, as I bid you speed and strength, with the extra god by your side, may I make a final plea. You have given us of yourself, and of your son. Now will you kindly also give unto us your luminous daughter.


Pre-Launch Jitters and Then... Liftoff

on Friday, May 8, 2009

Contributing astronaut blogger Leroy Chiao continues to enlighten us about space travel, backtracking to the pre-launch period of nervous tension—and steak and eggs—then on to that unforgettable moment of explosive truth.

Today, I was going to write about how to do something else in space. But, I changed my mind. Let's back up to the beginning of a mission. What's it like to go through a launch? How does it feel? Are you able to sleep the night before? Do you get scared? What do you eat before?

Steak and eggs. Medium rare and over easy. This is what the first astronauts ate before launch and why not? I remember during one of my launch counts, the ladies were taking our pre-launch breakfast orders, going around the table. I was hearing things like, dry toast. A little yogurt. Cereal. You gotta be kidding me, what kind of pantywaists am I flying with? They got to me and I replied firmly and evenly, "Steak and eggs, medium rare and over easy." Everyone looked at me funny. I stated the obvious. "Hey, we might go out tomorrow and get blown up. I'm going to have steak and eggs!" Immediately, three guys changed their orders to steak and eggs. I was doing all of us a favor, really. You need a hearty breakfast before launch, you're going to be really busy. Yogurt? Come on.

Sleep wasn't really a problem either, although I tended to wake up a few times at night in anticipation, just like when I have other important morning appointments. We usually wake up about four hours before launch, and hit the ground running.

After breakfast and cleanup, it's time to get suited up. Walk down the hall and meet up with the suit technicians. Seasoned professionals, your suit tech has been with you all through training. He or she makes sure that everything is just right, and after the pressure checks are complete, sends you on your way.

From that point, it's a bit of a blur, as you walk out of the Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center, to the applause of the employees who have gathered at the entrance. You climb onto the Astrovan, which is a converted Airstream RV from the Apollo days. Crews typically joke and banter a bit, the atmosphere is lighthearted, during the short drive to the launch pad. Everyone falls silent as the bird comes into view. She is beautiful. She is ready, as are we.

At the pad, we climb out and ride the elevator to the 195-foot level, where we are greeted by the ingress crew. Time for one more quick pee. Maybe for good luck, but more, so that I won't have to use the adult diaper that I'm wearing! After all, we strap into the Space Shuttle about two and a half hours before launch.

Is this when the jitters hit? Actually, no. This is kind of a time to relax a bit. The environment is totally familiar, thanks to the hours upon hours spent in the simulators. For once, nobody is talking to you. Nobody is asking you for something. It's not unusual to doze off.

As the launch count proceeds, there is a point at which things get serious. Certainly as we come out of the T-20 minute hold. After we come out of the T-9 minute hold, the cockpit is sterile. No unnecessary chatter on the intercom. Is this when it becomes real? Not just yet. For me, it is not until the T-90 second point, when the Launch Director says something like, "Columbia, close and lock your visors, initiate O2 flow, have a good flight." Then it very suddenly becomes very real.

What did I feel at T-Zero? The answer might surprise you. I felt relief.

Certainly, I was keyed up. After all, we were sitting on top of a bomb, being accelerated to orbital velocity of 17,500 mph in less than nine minutes. Pretty heady stuff! But the thing of which astronauts are most afraid is not getting the chance to launch into space. What if I get hit by a car? What if the doctors find something wrong with me at the last minute? What happens if…? All of those worries go away the instant the boosters light!

First stage on the Space Shuttle is shaky. You can't really read the instruments and screens very well. At T-Zero it feels like someone kicks the back of your seat really hard, the Shuttle seems to leap off of the pad. You hear the wind noise build into a high-pitched whine. You see the blue sky start to get dark, fairly quickly. You don't so much hear the rumble of the engines as feel them. Everything is oddly orderly, even quiet. That's because we are accustomed to the simulators, when all the warning and emergency lights and klaxons are going off, as we deal with the failure scenario presented to us by the training team. On launch day, pretty much everything usually works!

On my first flight, I was up on the flight deck for launch. I had a small mirror, through which I could look out of the overhead windows, which were pointed more or less towards the Earth. (The Shuttle rolls into launch azimuth and heels over as the ascent proceeds.) I saw the ground rushing away, through the flames of the engines.

After about two minutes, the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) tail off as the last bits of fuel in them are consumed. You feel the deceleration, and then see the flash of bright light as the separation motors fire, peeling them away from the stack. It is suddenly very smooth and quiet. My heart leapt into my throat when this happened to me the first time. My first thought was that the main engines had also stopped and we were about to go down! But, that was not the case, I just hadn't expected second stage to be so smooth.

During the last few minutes of launch, the vehicle accelerates to orbital velocity. You are under three Gs of loading, so it feels like a small gorilla is sitting on your chest. It takes a little effort to breath, but it's OK.

Suddenly, right on cue (you're always watching the clock), the main engines cut off, and you are instantly weightless! As I looked out the windows and for the first time beheld the awesome beauty of the Earth from space, I was almost overcome with emotion. I had made it, I had realized my childhood dream. I allowed myself to revel in this moment for just a few seconds. Yes, I was in space, but it was also time to get to work!

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