Who Is Raja Chari: The Indian-Origin Astronaut in NASA’s New Mission To the Moon

On December 9, NASA announced a list of 18 astronauts who will train for its Artemis moon-landing programme. The ambitious modern lunar exploration programme will land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024. Officials say it aims to establish a “sustainable human-lunar presence” by the end of the decade.

Among these 18 names is that of 43-year-old Raja Jon Vurputoor Chari, an Indian-American US Air Force colonel, with over 2,000 hours of flight time.

Chari was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, Sreenivas V Chari, came to the US from Hyderabad at a young age to earn an engineering degree and carve a successful career for himself. “My father came to the country with the goal of getting an education and realising the importance of that directly translated to how I was brought up,” Chari told PTI, and added, “There was a focus throughout my childhood on education and that you really needed to do well to succeed.”

Chari is a graduate of the US Air Force Academy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and US Naval Test Pilot School, and the only Indian-American name on this list. He was selected by NASA to join the 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class, and reported for duty in August the same year. Having completed the initial training, he is now eligible for a mission assignment.

raja chari astronaut class 2017
Raja Chari with his 2017 Astronaut Class (Photo source: Flickr)

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

He would be the third Indian-American in space, after Sunita Williams in 1998, and Kalpana Chawla in 2003. He was among those chosen from 18,000 applicants in 2017, when NASA announced the Artemis programme.

Chari’s cap is adorned with many feathers. He has been awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Aerial Achievement Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Air Force Achievement Medal, an Iraq Campaign Medal, a Korean Defense Service Medal and the Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal, among others.

In a video shared by NASA Aeronautics, Chari speaks about his life and journey to becoming an astronaut. “If I ask my mom, she definitely has memories of me as a child talking about being an astronaut. I always knew I wanted to do something related to aviation. But at the same time, I think I also started to tell myself it wasn’t really possible because it was just something they’ll get let down from,” he said in the video.

The astronauts of the mission come from diverse backgrounds and with an array of experiences. Most of those chosen are in their 30s and 40s, and half of them are women. NASA will later announce flight assignments for astronauts. Additional Artemis team members will include international partner astronauts, who will join the mission later.

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