India Introduces First Astronaut Group

India Introduces First Astronaut Group

India introduced its first group of astronauts today. They will not be the first Indians to fly into space — that distinction belongs to Rakesh Sharma — but are the first official class of astronauts as part of India’s long term program for human spaceflight called Gaganyaan.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in 2018 that India would embark on its own human spaceflight program. Last October he laid out plans including an Indian space station by 2035 and a man on the Moon by 2040.

India conducted the TV-D1 uncrewed pad abort test of their crew capsule days later. An uncrewed orbital test flight is planned this year.

Today Modi was at the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Center in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, to bestow wings on the four “astronaut designees”: Group Captain Prasanth BalaKrishnan Nair, Group Captain Ajit Krishnan, Group Captain Angad Pratap, and Wing Commander Shubhanshu Shukla.

India’s astronauts receive their wings from Prime Minister Narendra Modi (white hair) and ISRO Chairman S. Somanath (far right). The astronauts are (L-R): Group Captain Prasanth BalaKrishnan Nair, Group Captain Ajit Krishnan, Group Captain Angad Pratap, and Wing Commander Shubhanshu Shukla. Screengrab from Doordarshan TV. February 27, 2024.


India’s astronauts on stage with their photos and names projected on the screen behind them. Screengrab from Doordarshan TV, February 27, 2024. 

Three will fly the first mission to Earth orbit next year, which is expected to last three days.

All four are Indian Air Force test pilots and have been in training for several years including 13 months at Russia’s Gagarin Training Center outside Moscow.

In a post on X, Modi said they “reflect the hopes, aspirations and optimism of 140 crore Indians.” (A crore is 10 million.)

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet congratulated his “Indian friends” in a post on X saying he has bumped into them “behind the scenes a few times.”

Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian in space in 1984 as a member of the Soyuz T-11/Soyuz T-10 crew to the Soviet Union’s Salyut-7 space station.

Other individuals of Indian heritage have flown into space as part of NASA’s astronaut corps: Sunita (Suni) Williams, who has spent two tours on the ISS already and will soon return as pilot of Boeing’s Starliner Crew Flight Test; Raja Chari, who returned from six months on the ISS in May 2022; and Kalpana Chawla, who perished in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident, her second spaceflight. Chawla was born in India; Williams and Chari in the U.S.

India has a robust launch vehicle fleet. In addition to launching many earth-orbiting satellites, it has sent robotic probes to the Moon and Mars, including Chandrayaan-3 that soft landed on the Moon last year and the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, or Mangalyaan). ISRO’s Aditya-1 probe recently arrived at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange Point to study the Sun.

Last year India became the 27th country to join the U.S.-led Artemis Accords.

India also launches satellites for national security purposes and is one of only four countries to destroy one of its own satellites to demonstrate an antisatellite capability (Russia, China and the United States are the others).

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