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Business News/ News / Four IAF test pilots to go on India’s first manned space mission

Four IAF test pilots to go on India’s first manned space mission

India’s human spaceflight programme, Gaganyaan, is on track for a 2025 launch

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announces the names of astronauts selected for Gaganyaan, India's first human space flight mission, at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre on Tuesday. (PTI)Premium
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announces the names of astronauts selected for Gaganyaan, India's first human space flight mission, at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre on Tuesday. (PTI)

NEW DELHI : The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) on Tuesday revealed the first four astronauts selected for India’s human spaceflight programme, Gaganyaan. 

The astronauts are test pilots with the Indian Air Force, and will be a part of the country’s first ever manned space mission that is scheduled for take-off by the end of next year.

The astronauts—Group Captains Prashanth Balakrishnan Nair, Ajit Krishnan and Angad Pratap, and Wing Commander Subhanshu Shukla—were offered designatory astronaut-wing badges by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an event at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Isro’s headquarters.

The astronauts are the final four from a list of 12 candidates shortlisted for Gaganyaan. They underwent training in Russia between 2020 and 2021 before continuing to be trained via simulator facilities in Bengaluru.

“India’s success in the space sector is sowing the seeds of scientific temperament in the country’s young generation," Modi said, addressing the event during his visit.

He also unveiled the PSLV Integration Facility and the Semi-cryogenic Integrated Engine and Stage Test (SIEST) facility in Mahendragiri, Odisha, and a Trisonic Wind Tunnel at the Isro headquarters. This was Modi’s first visit to Isro’s primary facilities.

The 47-year-old Nair is the senior-most of the four chosen astronauts, and is a Sword of Honour-recipient at the Air Force Academy. Nair was commissioned in 1998, and has over 3,000 hours of flying experience. 

Krishnan, 41, is a President’s gold medal awardee, and has over 2,900 hours of flying experience. Pratap (41) and Shukla (38) both have over 2,000 flying hours under their belts.

The astronauts will fly to a low-earth orbit aboard a human capsule module as part of the Gaganyaan mission to showcase indigenous space technologies and their ability to sustain manned space missions that extend further into space. 

The quartet will be the first Indian citizens to fly to space after Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma flew to space aboard a Soyuz T-11 spacecraft as part of the Soviet Interkosmos programme in April 1984.

Isro’s human spaceflight programme is expected to put India on the global map of human space-faring nations. Upon successful completion, India will join the US, Russia and China as nations that have active human spaceflight programmes. 

Unmanned trials for Gaganyaan are expected to commence later this year. By March next year, Isro is expected to complete seven trial launches under Gaganyaan.

A senior industry official familiar with Isro’s plans said the selection of pilots was undertaken keeping in mind specific requirements of India’s first manned space mission. 

“Our first-generation astronauts were trained specifically with promptness of reactions in mind, as well as preparedness in extreme flight conditions. Group Captain Nair is a veteran in flight, and is expected to lead the mission," the official said, declining to be identified.

India’s manned space mission is being handled purely by Isro, which is working with partner vendors for a fully indigenous technology stack for Gaganyaan’s space infrastructure. 

This marks a key differentiating factor between India and the US, which contracts private firms such as SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin for a wide range of commercial as well as human spaceflight projects. 

Industry veterans say the opening up of central space projects, with the Indian government as a customer, will be key to offering a pivot of success for private space startups.

However, prior to involving private space startups in manned missions, the former will be required to prove their reliability in space missions—a factor that typically takes multiple decades in the global space industry.

India, in terms of the global space ecosystem, also joined the US, Russia (through the erstwhile Soviet Union) and China to become only the fourth nation to successfully land a rover on the moon, with the Chandrayaan-3 mission on 23 August last year. 

Isro’s Chandrayaan missions have so far made key observations that have quantified research into the presence of water on the lunar surface. Through Gaganyaan, India is expected to increase its stature in applied research projects in space.

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Published: 27 Feb 2024, 07:37 PM IST
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