In what could be termed as a proud moment for India, NASA has selected an Indian-American for its missions into Earth orbit and deep space. Meet Raja Chari, the 39-year-old who is Lieutenant Colonel with the US Air Force and has made it to the list of 12 astronauts selected from a record number of 18,000 applicants.
The 12 astronauts include seven men and five women comprising the 22nd class of American spaceflight trainees since 1959. This group is largest one selected by NASA in almost two decades. The space agency has announced that this group will have to take a two-year training in the month of August.
Hailing from Waterloo, Iowa, Raja “Grinder” Chari is a commander of the 461st Flight Test Squadron. He is also the director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Raja Chari got a Master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School.
A record 18,300 people had applied for the programme. The number is more than the US space agency has ever received during an open astronaut call.
Candidates were required to pass some physical requirements and also certain education and experience criteria such as having a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field or accumulating up to 1,000 hours of piloting jets to be able to get selected. This new class greatly surpasses all the minimum skills required by NASA.
After completing the two-year training programme, the new astronauts could be assigned to missions that are involved in research on the International Space Station (ISS), launching from American soil on spacecraft built by commercial companies, and flying on deep space missions on NASA’s new Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket.
The new astronaut candidates or “ascans” were announced by Vice President Mike Pence and NASA leaders, including acting administrator Robert Lightfoot and director of flight operations Brian Kelly.
The announcement was made during an event at the Johnson Space Center’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility in front of a full-scale engineering model of NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The new astronauts might fly the Orion in the coming years on missions beyond low Earth orbit.
According to Pence, US President Donald Trump is “firmly committed” to NASA’s mission in space and that “America will lead the way in space once again”.
NASA would continue to have the resources it needs to “make history”, even though the president’s budget request cuts funding and cancels certain programs at the agency, he said, adding that NASA would continue to collaborate with the commercial space industry in the future.
“The courage of these men and women, and all the astronauts who have gone before, inspires me to this very day,” Pence said.
Six military officers, three scientists, two medical doctors, a lead engineer at SpaceX and a NASA research pilot are among the 12 new candidates.
Chari’s father Srinivas Chari was an engineer and he immigrated to the US after his engineering from Osmania University in Hyderabad.
Among other candidates include Lt Kayla “Sax” Barron, 29, Zena Cardman, 29, Lt Commander Matthew Dominick, 35, Bob Hines, 42, Warren “Woody” Hoburg, 31, Jonny Kim, 33, Robb Kulin, 33, Major Jasmin Moghbeli, 33, Loral O’Hara, 34, Francisco Rubio, 41 and Jessica Watkins, 28.
The elite 12:
1. Navy Lt Kayla Barron who belongs to Richland, Washington, is a submarine-warfare officer and nuclear engineer. She was among the first class of women commissioned into the submarine service and now works at the US Naval Academy.
2. Zena Cardman who hails from Williamsburg, Virginia, is a graduate research fellow at the National Science Foundation with a specialty in microorganisms in subsurface environments such as caves.
3. Air Force Lt Col Raja Chari belonging to Cedar Falls, Iowa, is the director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
4. Navy Lt Cmdr Matthew Dominick from Wheat Ridge, Colorado, department is the head for Strike Fighter Squadron 115.
5. Bob Hines from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is a NASA research pilot at Johnson Space Center.
6. Warren "Woody" Hoburg of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
7. Dr Jonny Kim from Los Angeles, is a Navy lieutenant. He trained as a SEAL and is completing his residency in emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
8. Robb Kulin from Anchorage, Alaska, leads the launch chief engineering group for SpaceX at Hawthorne, California.
9. Marine Maj Jasmin Moghbeli of Baldwin, New York, tests H-1 helicopters and also serves as a quality assurance and avionics officer for Marine Operational Test Evaluation Squadron 1 in Yuma, Arizona.
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10. Loral O'Hara from Sugar Land, Texas, is a research engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
11. Dr Francisco "Frank" Rubio of Miami is an Army major and serves as a surgeon in Fort Carson, Colorado.
12. Jessica Watkins from Lafayette, Colorado, is a postdoctoral fellow at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.