At a ceremony during an official visit to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, on February 27, Prime Minister Narendra Modi revealed the names of the four astronaut-candidates for the first human spaceflight mission, a.k.a. Gaganyaan, of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). They are group captains Prasanth Balakrishnan Nair, Ajit Krishnan, and Angad Pratap, and wing commander Shubanshu Shukla — all with the Indian Air Force.

The purpose of Gaganyaan is for ISRO to demonstrate human spaceflight to a low-earth orbit, with an Indian launch vehicle. Teams at the organisation are currently putting various components of the mission through their paces in the course of human-rating them — i.e. making sure their failure rates are below specific thresholds, rendering them safe enough for humans to fly to space with. Gaganyaan has two important uncrewed test flights coming up. If they are successful, the first crewed flight is (so far) slated for 2025.

The four candidates

Group captain Nair hails from Kerala. He was born on August 26, 1978. According to media reports, Mr. Nair studied at N.S.S. Engineering College, Palakkad and then enrolled at the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Khadakvasla, Maharashtra.

After graduating from the NDA in 1997, he was commissioned in 1998 as a fighter pilot by the Air Force. He became a flying instructor and subsequently a test pilot — a class of pilots who are expected to fly new and/or modified aircraft, test new flight techniques, and evaluate safety parameters. According to people familiar with Mr. Nair’s education, he reportedly excelled at academics. At the Air Force Academy, he received the ‘Sword of Honour’, a distinction reserved for the cadet with the best performance. As a test pilot as well, he is said to have clocked more than 3,000 hours of flight and commanded a squadron of Su-30 aircraft, plus being able to fly other aircraft as well.

Mr. Nair and Malayalam film actor Lena Kumar were wedded in a private ceremony in January this year.

Ajit Krishnan’s selection in the final shortlist of candidates for Gaganyaan followed a similar trajectory. Mr. Krishnan was born on April 19, 1982, and hails from Chennai. He graduated from the NDA in 2002, received the ‘Sword of Honour’ at the Air Force Academy, and was finally commissioned by the Air Force in 2003. He is also a test pilot, with 2,900 hours of flight under his belt, and is able to fly Sukhoi, MiG, Jaguar, Hawk, Dornier, and the Antonov An-32 aircraft.

A year after Mr. Krishnan’s passing out from the NDA, Angad Pratap (born July 17, 1982, in Prayagraj) followed suit. He was commissioned by the Air Force in 2004 and also went on to become a test pilot, accruing around 2,000 hours of flight and training to fly multiple aircraft.

Shubhanshu Shukla (born October 10, 1985, in Lucknow) finished his training at the NDA in 2005 and joined the Air Force as a fighter pilot in 2006, and went on to become a test pilot, with a similar flying experience as Mr. Pratap.

Because of their training and responsibilities towards the Air Force, test pilots have been the astronauts of choice for fledgling human spaceflight attempts. Rakesh Sharma, who became the first Indian citizen in space after launching onboard the Soviet Union’s Soyuz T-11 mission in 1984, was a test pilot as well.

The gist

The current plan for the first Gaganyaan mission is to send up to two astronauts onboard the crew module for at most a week to an altitude of 400 km

In this regard, two of the candidates will fly and two will be on stand-by

One of the four is also expected to be flown to the International Space Station before Gaganyaan’s maiden flight

The NDA’s training programme spans six terms over three years. Cadets aspiring to be commissioned by the Air Force train with the Air Force Training Team (AFTT) in the fifth and sixth terms. Their curriculum includes ground and flight training, aviation-related activities, and subjects related to their professional training at the Air Force itself.

Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale (retd.) has been quoted describing the AFTT as the “cradle of military aviation” in the country. It was established in 1956 with squadron leader Douglas George King-Lee as its first officer-in-charge.

Astronaut training

Work on selecting and training the candidates for Gaganyaan commenced soon after the Union Cabinet approved the mission in 2018. These activities have spanned at least three facilities in two countries: the Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM), Bengaluru, of the Indian Air Force; the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC) in Russia; and the Astronaut Training Facility, also in Bengaluru.

The Soviet Union set up its astronaut training facility in 1960 and named it after the world’s first astronaut, and the Soviet Union’s first cosmonaut, in 1968. After the Soviet Union splintered, Russia set up the State Scientific Research Centre of Cosmonaut Training in 1995 and named it for Yuri Gagarin as well. It was administered by the aviation wing of the Ministry of Defence and the national space agency. Between 1960 and 1996, the Centre trained 24 astronauts from 17 countries other than its own crew.

The four candidates trained at the GCTC for 13 months. It includes facilities for simulating spacecraft controls, extra-vehicular activities (like spacewalks), neutral buoyancy, microgravity, centrifuges to simulate high-gravity training (for the launch), and survival (for example, in case the Gaganyaan crew capsule lands somewhere other than in the Bay of Bengal as planned).

The candidates’ 13-month programme at the GCTC was followed by further activity at the Astronaut Training Facility in Bengaluru, which ISRO had operationalised in 2022 for Gaganyaan. This ‘temporary’ setup includes three simulators. A larger, more permanent establishment at the Challakere Science City in the same state is being set up for future missions. The candidates also had theory classes, according to ISRO.

Four powers

While the crew module can host up to three astronauts, ISRO chairman S. Somanath hasn’t ruled out sending only one astronaut to space on the first Gaganyaan mission — stressing the importance of mental fitness as well.

The current plan for the first Gaganyaan mission is to send up to two astronauts onboard the crew module for at most a week to an altitude of 400 km. In this regard, two of the candidates will fly and two will be on stand-by. One of the four is also expected to be flown to the International Space Station before Gaganyaan’s maiden flight.

Prime Minister Modi referred to each of the four pilots as a “shakti”, or a power. Their responsibilities before being selected for Gaganyaan, fitness tests, and training regimen attest to this virtue. Yet, as multiple missions by other space agencies would attest, such rigorous qualification — of the astronauts and the machines — is simply to leave more bandwidth open for the vagaries human spaceflight has in store.

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