From Fighter Pilots To Astronauts – How IL-76 Aircraft Helped India Train Its ‘Vyomnauts’ For 1st Manned Space Mission

The Indian government recently unveiled the identity of the four potential Astronauts or ‘Vyomnauts’, designated to go to space in the first human mission of India. The experienced test pilots of the Indian Air Force (IAF), after successfully pulling some formidable ‘Gs’, are now preparing for a life in Zero Gravity.

While sending an Indian to space caught the public imagination after the success of Chandrayan missions, the foundation was laid in 2007 when the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully conducted a Space Capsule Recovery Experiment. The capsule was recovered successfully after orbiting around the Earth for 10 days. ISRO demonstrated the re-entry of the crew module in 2016.

The official announcement of India’s ambition to send a man to space was made on August 15, 2018, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced from the Red Fort during the Independence Day celebration that India will be sending a man mission to space soon.

In 2019, the IAF invited applications from its experimental test pilots below the age of 39 with nearly 2,000 hours of flying experience or above. The IAF completed the Level-1 of Indian Astronaut selection at the Institute of Aerospace Medicine. The selected test pilots have undergone extensive physical exercise tests, lab investigations, radiological tests, clinical tests, and evaluations on various facets of their psychology.

From these 10 were selected, who were then whittled down to the Fantastic Four. The process of elimination was meant to choose the toughest – both physically and mentally, who would survive in a space where only a handful of humans have ventured before.

The screening process took place both in India and Russia, with an exhaustive list of medical tests assessing the physical and mental health of the candidates. The maximum rejection happened in the medical tests.

Space poses incredible challenges to human physiology. Loss in bone density and muscles is experienced in Zero Gravity situations.

These selected candidates then headed to Russia to train at the Yuri A. Gagarin State Scientific Research-and-Testing Cosmonaut Training Center in the Star City of Moscow Oblast. The potential astronauts underwent rigorous training involving survival training in challenging conditions, parabolic weightlessness, extreme G-force simulation, and psychological tests.

One of the ‘Vyomnauts’ (astronauts) preparing for India’s first manned space mission told the EurAsian Times: “The training in Russia was both theoretical and physical. There was a lot of survival training that toughens one up.”

The four selected fighter pilots – Group Captain P. Balakrishnan Nair, Group Captain Angad Prathap, Group Captain Ajit Krishnan, and Wing Commander Shubhanshu Shukla, have a cumulative experience of 10,000 flying hours between them. They have flown fighter jets like Su-30MKI, Mig-21, Jaguars, Mig-29, Dornier, and An-32, among others.

However, experiencing Zero gravity was a new experience for them.

How To Switch Off Gravity During Astronaut Training?

The vyomnauts/astronauts went up into space in the modified Russian aircraft Ilyushin Il-76, modified as “Flying Laboratory” to help them float in zero gravity mode. To achieve short-term micro-gravity, the aircraft flies in a parabolic pattern called the Kepler curve.

In the specially designated area, the aircraft flies horizontally at a height of 6,000 meters, then climbs at a 45-degree angle. During the ascent, lasting for about 15 seconds, all flight participants experience G-loads up to 2g.

At the height of 9,000 meters, the pilot thrusts down, and the aircraft performs a coasting flight. As soon as inertia force and gravity opposite to each other are equal, everything inside the aircraft becomes weightless. The astronauts in training undergo a Zero gravity episode of 30 seconds. In one sortie, it is done 10-12 times.

“It (Zero Gravity) is a funny feeling. Once you get used to it, it becomes fun. When there is gravity, one has friction that helps in movement. In zero gravity, you need something for support. You need to push something to move from one end to another where you have something to hold on to,” the astronaut-designate told EurAsian Times.

Ilyushin’s enormous cargo compartment was turned into a laboratory area that was more than 24 meters long, about 3.5 meters wide, and high, which enabled it to float during zero-gravity mode. The cabin is equipped with support handrails installed at different levels and high-voltage lamps; the floor is covered with mats.

When asked which is more difficult – pulling high Gs or zero gravity, the astronaut designate replied: “Pulling ‘G’s is difficult and so is zero gravity. With training, both become easier and manageable.”

On Earth, it is difficult to simulate zero gravity for more than 30 seconds. As part of Gaganyan, these astronauts will experience zero gravity for three days when they will be in lower earth orbit.

Indian-Astronauts – Via ISRO

When Zero Gravity Seems Milder

As part of their intensive training, the astronauts spend their time strapped to a chair and spun around, backward, forward, and upside down in a series of ominous rotating metal rings. It is known by many names as a multi-axis trainer or rotating chair. It tests their balance, coordination, and susceptibility to motion sickness in space.

Data is collected about changes in human gravity receptors and about the sensitivity of the semicircular canals of the inner ear where motion is perceived. “It is not a pleasant experience. Zero gravity is milder than a spinning chair. It is nauseating,” the astronaut-designate reflected.

After prolonged exposure to microgravity, astronauts find it difficult to stand and walk upright. They find difficulty in stabilizing their gaze and walking or turning corners in a coordinated manner. An astronaut’s sense of balance and body orientation takes time to re-adapt to Earth-normal conditions.

What Will Astronauts Eat In Space?

The food in space has to have a certain texture, it has to be binding. It should not spread around and, at the same time, should be easy to digest. The responsibility of creating special food is with the Defense Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) Mysuru. They are curating a special menu for the space-bound Indians.

The tasting sessions are conducted for the astronauts. The food is adapted to include Indian flavors like Idli Sambhar, Upma, and Biryani and desserts like Moong Dal Halwa.

“Apart from the food, we are also tasked with providing food-warmer technology, stainless steel cutlery, and a waste disposal pack,” DFRL Director Anil Semwal has been quoted in the media.

The DFRL is responsible for creating food for soldiers in harsh conditions. The lab is also designing special sachets attached to straws to prevent them from spilling.

The food taken to space has come a long way. During NASA’s early human spaceflight program, astronauts had to contend with unappetizing bite-sized, freeze-dried powders and thick liquids stuffed into aluminum tubes.

The space mission is expected sometime next year, till then the astronauts will be leading a disciplined life with aerobics, strength training, and yoga forming a major part of their lives. They are also practicing swimming as their module will be recovered in the Indian Ocean after re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • The author can be reached at ritu.sharma (at)
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