Science and Nature

Before NASA’s Raja Chari, the astronauts who took India into space

Before NASA’s Raja Chari, the astronauts who took India into space thumbnail

This will be the first spaceflight for Chari, who became a NASA astronaut in 2017. (Twitter/@NASA_Astronauts)

Indian-American US Air Force Colonel Raja Jon Vurputoor Chari made history this week, when he was named among 18 astronauts who have been selected by NASA for its ambitious manned mission to the moon and beyond on December 9.

The 43-year-old is the sole Indian-origin member of NASA’s diverse Artemis Team, which is set to land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024 and establish a sustainable human presence on the lunar surface by the end of the decade, the American space agency said.

Proud to be a small part of the huge @NASA team working to get humans to the moon to stay. We need explorers, engineers, and dreamers to get #Artemis there

— Raja Chari (@Astro_Raja) December 10, 2020

With this, Chari will become the fourth person of Indian origin to go to outer space. The first Indian to enter space was Rakesh Sharma, when he flew aboard the Soviet rocket Soyuz T-11 in 1984.

Read| Indian-American astronaut among 18 in NASA’s manned Moon mission

While India is yet to launch a manned space flight, four Indian astronauts will soon complete their training at Russia’s Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow in preparation for the country’s first crewed Gaganyaan project.

Here is a list of all Indian and Indian-origin astronauts

Rakesh Sharma

On April 3, 1984, Rakesh Sharma flew aboard the Soviet Soyuz T-11 rocket to the space station Salyut 7.

In 1984, former Indian Air Force pilot Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian citizen to travel into space. He was selected as a cosmonaut for a space mission launched jointly by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Soviet Intercosmos space programme.

On April 3, 1984, he flew aboard the Soviet Soyuz T-11 rocket to the space station Salyut 7. When then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked him what India looked like from outer space, Sharma famously said, “Saare Jahaan se Achcha”.

Soon after he returned from space, he was conferred with the ‘Hero of Soviet Union’ award, making him the first Indian to receive the prestigious honour. He also received India’s highest peacetime gallantry award, the Ashok Chakra.

Prior to becoming a cosmonaut, the seasoned IAF test pilot had flown 21 combat missions in a MiG-21 during the Bangladesh war of 1971.

Kalpana Chawla

Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, STS-107 mission specialist, prepares to simulate a parachute drop into water during an emergency bailout training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near the Johnson Space Center (JSC). (Source: NASA)

On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia flight STS-10 disintegrated over Texas during its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts who were aboard the craft. Amongst them was Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman to travel to space, who quickly became a national hero and icon.

Born in Karnal, Chawla received a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College before moving to the United States for her masters and PhD. In 1994, she was selected as an astronaut candidate at NASA.

Chawla first travelled to space aboard the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia flight STS-87. The shuttle made 252 orbits around the Earth in a little over two weeks, before the tragic accident that took place in February while it was returning to Earth.

Sunita Williams

Sunita Williams holds the record of longest spaceflight for a female space traveller as well as the most spacewalking time by a woman. (IE Photo: Ravi Kanojia)

NASA astronaut and former US Navy test pilot Sunita Williams has set many records over the course of her career. During her two flights to the International Space Station (ISS), she has logged more than 321 days in space, making her one of the most experienced female astronauts in the United States.

She holds the record of longest spaceflight (195 days) for a female space traveller as well as the most spacewalking time by a woman — at 50 hours and 40 minutes over seven career excursions.

She famously participated in the Boston Marathon while in space by running approximately 42.2 km on the ISS’ treadmill.

Ravish Malhotra

While Rakesh Sharma became a household name after he became the first Indian to enter space, Air Commodore (Retd) Ravish Malhotra’s story is often forgotten. He was the man who was trained alongside Sharma as his backup astronaut for the Indo-Soviet space mission. However, despite rigorously preparing for the journey, the Kirti Chakra recipient did not get to go to space.

Raja Chari

Indian-American US Air Force colonel Raja Chari is among 18 astronauts, who will form NASA’s Artemis Team and help pave the way for the next lunar missions. He was selected by NASA to join the 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class.

After completing the initial astronaut candidate training, Chari is now eligible for a mission assignment. Before his NASA career, he was an Air Force pilot with over 2,000 hours of flying time.

The Gaganyaan team

A team of four Indian Air Force pilots have been undergoing intense training at Russia’s Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow for India’s maiden manned mission ‘Gaganyaan’.

“We have selected 4 IAF pilots for our first manned space mission in 2021-22. Three of them will go into space to orbit around the earth for a week and conduct experiments in micro-gravity and bio-science,” ISRO chairman K Sivan announced earlier this year.

Their training was briefly paused in May due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, but has since resumed. However, ISRO officials have said that the mission may now be delayed by a year.

Leave a Comment