Indian American Raja Chari is among 11 new astronauts who joined NASA’s ranks on Friday (January 10), taking the strength of the active astronauts corps in the United States space agency to 48. The new graduates have completed more than two years of basic training, and are the first to graduates since NASA announced its Artemis programme. NASA said its astronauts corps “will expand humanity’s horizons in space for generations to come”.
This cohort of new astronauts may be assigned to space missions to the International Space Station (ISS), the Moon and ultimately, Mars. The agency has targeted the human exploration of Mars by the 2030s.
Who is Raja Chari?
Raja Chari was selected by NASA to join the 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class. According to his bio on the NASA website, he reported for duty in August 2017, and having completed the initial astronaut candidate training, is now eligible for a mission assignment.
Chari, a US Air Force colonel, hails from Cedar Falls, Iowa.
He graduated from the US Air Force Academy with bachelor’s degrees in astronautical engineering and engineering science. He then earned a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland.
Chari served as the commander of the 461st Flight Test Squadron and the director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California.
NASA wants to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by the year 2024, which it plans on doing through the Artemis lunar exploration program.
With the Artemis program, NASA wishes to demonstrate new technologies, capabilities and business approaches that will ultimately be needed for the future exploration of Mars.
For the Artemis program, NASA’s new rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) will send astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft a quarter of a million miles away from Earth to the lunar orbit.
Once astronauts dock Orion at the Gateway — which is a small spaceship in orbit around the moon — the astronauts will be able to live and work around the Moon, and from the spaceship, astronauts will take expeditions to the surface of the Moon.
The astronauts going for the Artemis program will wear newly designed spacesuits, called Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU. These spacesuits feature advanced mobility and communications and interchangeable parts that can be configured for spacewalks in microgravity or on a planetary surface.
NASA and the Moon
The US began trying to put people in space as early as in 1961. Eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the Moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.
While climbing down the ladder towards the surface of the Moon he famously proclaimed, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Armstrong along with Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walked around the moon for over three hours, doing experiments and picking up bits and pieces of Moondust and rocks.
They left a US flag on the Moon along with a sign that said, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969, AD. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Apart from the purpose of space exploration itself, NASA’s endeavour to send Americans to the Moon again is to demonstrate American leadership in space, and to establish a strategic presence on the Moon, while expanding the US global economic impact.
“When they land, our American astronauts will step foot where no human has ever been before: the Moon’s South Pole,” says NASA.
In 1959, the Soviet Union’s uncrewed Luna 1 and 2 became the first rover to visit the Moon. Since then, seven nations have followed suit.
Before the US sent the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, it sent three classes of robotic missions between 1961 and 1968. After July 1969, 12 American astronauts walked on the surface of the Moon until 1972. Together, the Apollo astronauts brought back over 382 kg of lunar rock and soil back to Earth for study.
Then in the 1990s, the US resumed lunar exploration with robotic missions Clementine and Lunar Prospector. In 2009, it began a new series of robotic lunar missions with the launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS).
In 2011, NASA began the ARTEMIS (Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence, and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun) mission using a pair of repurposed spacecraft and in 2012 the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft studied the Moon’s gravity.
Apart from the US, the European Space Agency, Japan, China, and India have sent missions to explore the Moon.
China landed two rovers on the surface, which includes the first-ever landing on the Moon’s far side in 2019. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) recently announced India’s third lunar mission Chandrayaan-3, which will comprise a lander and a rover.
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