On April 2, 1984, exactly 30 years ago, India joined the elite club of nations whose citizens had travelled to outer space. Patiala-born Rakesh Sharma – a dashing, 35-year-old Indian Air Force test pilot – was the man chosen to join a mission conducted jointly by the Indian Space Research Organisation and the Soviet Intercosmos space programme.

That mission, Sharma told Scroll.in, wasn't exactly a walk in the park. In the first moments of the launch, he remembers “an immense sense of anticipation at the experience that was in store and a fair amount of stress associated with the achievement of a packed schedule”.

Three decades down the line, no other Indian citizen has ever been to space and the country isn't likely to launch a manned space mission in the near future. The Indian Space Research Organisation is making gradual progress with developing technologies that could take humans to space, but its proposed manned mission is not a part of the government’s current five-year plan.

This week, Sharma will stir himself from his retired life in the hills of Coonoor in Tamil Nadu to attend several various events to celebrate the anniversary of his historic eight-day trip to the Soviet Salyut 7 space station.

Sharma was accompanied on the mission by two Russian cosmonauts, and they had undergone 18 months of training for the journey. Their launch vehicle took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan. In those eight days, the crew conducted more than 40 experiments connected with earth sciences, material sciences and bio medicine, including an earth observation programme focussing on India. Sharma also practiced yoga on the space station to see if it would help ease the effects of weightlessness in space.

Perhaps India's proudest moment came during the press conference that the space station crew had with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She asked Sharma what India looked like from space. He replied, “Saare jahaan se achcha."

As an Air Force pilot before his stint in space, Sharma had successfully flown several MiG aircraft missions during the Indo-Pak War of 1971. In 1987, three years after his space visit, he joined Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, where he worked up until last year testing new aircraft. In 1988, an MiG-21 he was testing crashed in a field near Nashik, Maharashtra, and Sharma had a narrow escape.

Looking back, Sharma thinks flying fighter planes in Nashik was “a lot more stressful”, though not as challenging, as flying in space, because of the frequent failures and in-flight emergencies. “On the other hand, the ‘escape window’ in the event of an in-flight emergency while in space was a lot narrower than fighter flying....so, it is a toss up,” he said. “As long as things work, you live longer and everybody is happy!”

Sharma now lives, for the most part, a relaxed post-retirement life in the hills of Coonoor in Tamil Nadu. “I am well and truly retired after a hectic career,” Sharma, now 65, told Scroll.in. He serves as the chairman of the board of directors of an IT company in Bangalore, gives lectures when requested to and does some writing. So when Sharma says “retired”, he actually means he’s “done with flying”.

In the past 30 years, Sharma believes space technology has progressed significantly around the world, with the development of reliable space transportation systems and expertise to sustain permanent manned presence in the lower earth orbit. Still, India has a long way to go before it can launch its own manned space vehicle, said Sharma. “ISRO is not there yet, technologically,” he noted.

ISRO is in the process of building the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (better known as the GSLV-III), a rocket intended to launch heavy satellites into space and, if it proceeds successfully, could also launch a crew of two or three people. But ISRO’s proposed human spaceflight programme does not have government approval yet.

“The Indian government has given its approval to develop critical technologies for it, but has approved only a part of the Rs 12,500 crore that ISRO would need to send astronauts to space,” said Pallava Bagla, science editor at NDTV and author of the book Destination Moon.

The massive cost of sending humans to explore space is, in fact, one of the biggest arguments against manned space missions around the world. In India, unmanned missions have been largely successful: the Indian Remote Sensing system, with 12 operational satellites, is the largest constellation of such satellites for civilian use in the world, and provides data that help agriculture, forestry, geology and even water resources. In 2008, ISRO’s unmanned Chandrayaan mission managed to discover the widespread presence of water in the moon’s soil. At this moment, India’s unmanned Mars Orbiter Mission is on its way to the red planet, and has experienced no problems so far.

In 2010, science writer John Derbyshire wrote in a New York Times blog that “none of the most useful off-planet projects – GPS, earth imaging, anti-missile technology – has any requirement for human beings in space…anything a human being does up there could be done by unmanned machinery for one-thousandth the cost”.

But for every expert who would agree with this view, there are others who disagree. “Yes, robots are cheaper and sending humans to space would mean also sending all the systems needed to keep them alive, but no computer can ever match human versatility and capability,” said Mayank Vahia, a scientist at the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.

Added Bagla, “We will always need both manned and unmanned space missions, depending on the circumstances.”