Rakesh Sharma was born on 13 January 1949 at Patiala, Punjab, India. He attended St. Georges Grammar School, Hyderabad. He graduated from Nizam College. He joined the Air Force cadet in 1966.
An alumnus of the 35th National Defence Academy, Rakesh Sharma joined as a test pilot in the Indian Air Force in 1970. He flew various Mikoyan-Gurevich aircraft starting from 1971. Rakesh swiftly progressed through many levels and in 1984 he was appointed as the Squadron Leader and pilot of the Indian Air Force.He was selected on the twentieth of September in 1982 to become a cosmonaut and go into space as part of a joint programme between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Soviet Intercosmos space program.
He retired with the rank of Wing Commander. He joined the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in 1987 and served as Chief Test Pilot in the HAL Nashik Division until 1992, before moving on to Bangalore to work as the Chief Test Pilot of HAL. He was also associated with the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas.
In 1984, he became the first citizen of India to go into space when he flew aboard the Soviet rocket Soyuz T-11 blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic on the second of April 1984. The Soyuz T-11 docked and transferred the three member Soviet-Indian international crew which also included the Ship’s Commander Yury Malyshev and Flight Engineer Gennadi Strekalov (USSR) to the Salyut 7 Orbital Station. He spent 7 days 21 hours and 40 minutes aboard the Salyut 7 during which his team conducted scientific and technical studies which included 43 experimental sessions. His work was mainly in the fields of bio-medicine and remote sensing. The crew held a joint television news conference with officials in Moscow and then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Saare Jahan Se Achcha (the best in the world), said Sharma when Indira Gandhi asked him how India looked from outer space. India became the 14th nation to send a man to outer space.
He was conferred with the honour of Hero of Soviet Union upon his return from space. The Government of India conferred its highest gallantry award (during peace time), the Ashoka Chakra on him and the other two Soviet members of his mission, Malyshev and Strekalov.
He and his wife Madhu learned Russian during their stay in Russia in 1982. His son Kapil is a film director and his daughter Kritika is a media artist.