F-35 Pilot Raja Chari To Join The Ranks Of Kalpana Chawla, Sunita Williams For NASA Space Mission

Indian-origin F-35 fighter jet pilot Raja Chari will join the elite list of Indian-Americans like Sunita Williams and Kalpana Chawla who have been selected by NASA for its space missions.  Chari who has served in the US Air Force has been picked by NASA and the European Space Agency to command the SpaceX Crew-3 mission.

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This will be his first space flight. At the time of his selection in 2017, he was a Colonel in the US Air Force, serving as the Commander of the 461st Flight Test Squadron and the Director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force. 

NASA has signed a contract with SpaceX under its commercial crew program for six missions, as part of which NASA astronauts will travel to the International Space Station.

After Chari graduated from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, he was designated as a project manager for an ACAT-1 Program in the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.

He has more than 2000 hrs of flight time in the F-35, F-15, F-16, and F-18, including F-15E combat missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom and deployments in support of the Korean peninsula. During his stint with the US Air Force, Chari served as the Director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force and Commander of the 461st Flight Test Squadron, Edwards Air Force Base, California.

He oversaw a team of over 1,000 active duty members, including government officials and contractors for the planning and execution of F-35 developmental testing.

He also served at Eglin Airbase and executed flight test on F-15 aircraft to include the introduction of the first Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar on the F-15E, according to a report in SLDinfo.com.

Along with Chari, the SpaceX crew includes Tom Marshburn, who will serve as the pilot, and Matthias Maurer as a mission specialist. A fourth member will be picked later; the mission is scheduled for launch in the fall of 2021. 

Chari, Marshburn, and Maurer will arrive at the orbiting laboratory and will become expedition crew members for the duration of their six-month stay.

Raja Chari

“Proud to be working and training with Matthias Maurer and Thomas Henry Marshburn in preparation for a mission to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon,” Chari posted on his Facebook page.

This will be the third crew rotation mission of SpaceX’s human space transportation system and its fourth flight with astronauts, including the Demo-2 test flight, to the space station through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The goal of the program is to provide safe, reliable, and cost-effective crew access to the space station and low-Earth orbit in partnership with the American aerospace industry.

NASA’s contract with SpaceX is for six total crew missions to the orbiting laboratory. 

Chari’s Hyderabad connection

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chari has a bachelor’s degree in Astronautical Engineering from the US Air Force Academy in Colorado. He earned his master’s degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then went on to graduate from the US Naval Test Pilot School in Maryland. 

Chari’s father, Srinivas Chari, was born and brought up in Hyderabad and later immigrated to the US in the 1950s. “My father came to the country with the goal of getting an education and realizing the importance of that directly translated to how I was brought up.

There was a focus throughout my childhood on education and that you really needed to do well to succeed,” Raja Chari said in an interview with news agency PTI.

Chari becomes the third Indian American astronaut to go on a NASA space mission after Sunita Williams and Kalpana Chawla. He was picked as a member of the Artemis Team, along with 17 others to train astronauts to put the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024. 

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