Indian-American Raja Chari among largest group selected by NASA

NASA has chosen 12 new astronauts, including an Indian-American, from a record number of over 18,000 applicants, who will be trained for missions into Earth orbit and to deep space.

The seven men and five women comprise the 22nd class of American spaceflight trainees since 1959. This is the largest group NASA has selected in almost two decades.

Lt Col Raja “Grinder” Chari
Lt Col Raja Chari. Photo courtesy: NASA

Lt Col Raja “Grinder” Chari, 39, is a commander of the 461st Flight Test Squadron and the director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Hailing from Waterloo, Iowa, Chari earned a Master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT and graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School. His father is from India

To get picked, people had to meet some physical requirements as well as certain education and experience criteria such as having a bachelor’s degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field or accumulating up to 1,000 hours of piloting jets.

But it’s clear that this new class greatly surpasses all the minimum skills that NASA requires.

After completing two years of training, the new astronaut candidates could be assigned to missions performing research on the International Space Station, 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.

Vice-President Mike Pence joined NASA leaders, including acting administrator Robert Lightfoot and director of flight operations Brian Kelly, in Houston, Texas to announce the new astronaut candidates, or “ascans”.

The event was set inside the Johnson Space Center’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility in front of a full-scale engineering model of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which the new astronauts might fly in the coming years on missions beyond low Earth orbit.

Pence said President Donald Trump was “firmly committed” to NASA’s mission in space and that “America will lead the way in space once again.”

He said 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 also mentioned that NASA would continue to collaborate with the commercial space industry in the future.

While delivering the speech, Pence touted the merits of the new astronaut class.

“The courage of these men and women, and all the astronauts who have gone before, inspires me to this very day,” he said.

The 12 new candidates include six military officers, three scientists, two medical doctors, a lead engineer at SpaceX and a NASA research pilot.