(February 1, 2023) I was on a call with NASA’s Mission Control, Houston for about an hour before my 10:30 pm interview with SpaceX Crew-3 Commander Raja Jon Vurputoor ‘Grinder’ Chari, which was scheduled to be telecasted live on NASA TV on January 28, 2022. While I had interviewed him once before, it was amazing to converse with the Indian American astronaut this time as he floated in zero gravity, living his childhood dream.
“It’s been a great experience. I think once the second stage cut off on the dragon and we were in orbit, it was just a dream come true. And then actually getting onto the space station and getting to live here has been amazing. I remember the first time we saw the ISS from the Dragon. About 40 km away, as we were coming up the past transition from night to day, the sun hit the station, and it looked golden. It was pretty amazing. It’s been a blessing to be up here and getting to do science every day and work for the people on Earth,” the astronaut had told me from the International Space Station (ISS).
Exactly a year after that interview, US President Joe Biden nominated Chari to be appointed as the Air Force Brigadier General. The astronaut, who has roots in Telangana, was docked at the International Space Station for 177 days, between November 2021 and May 2022. Serving as a flight engineer aboard the ISS, he performed two spacewalks and helped in capturing and releasing three SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and two Cygnus cargo vehicles. An alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Global Indian is also the recipient of the prestigious Defense Meritorious Service Medal. As part of the Artemis Team, the astronaut is gearing up to be a part of NASA’s next lunar mission.
A dream journey
While NASA’s SpaceX Crew-3 mission might have been launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Chari’s journey to the International Space Station started when a young man from Hyderabad decided to move to the United States of America in the 70s. His father, Sreenivas Chari, who had an engineering degree from Osmania University, moved to the States with dreams of making a life for himself. “He sacrificed a lot for his family. I have many relatives in the US, and most of them credit my father for helping them build a life in the States. As a child, I couldn’t understand this, but now I believe that had my father not moved here, I wouldn’t be what I am,” the astronaut told me, adding that unfortunately, his father passed away in 2010.
The astronaut visited Hyderabad thrice, where many of his close relatives still live. “I went there as a teenager and remember going to the Tank Bund. That was one of the most memorable summer vacations I ever had — I played a lot with my cousins, ate some delicious food, and even tried to learn some Telugu, which unfortunately I don’t remember now,” he shared.
Growing up in Iowa’s Cedar Falls, Chari had just one dream – that of becoming an astronaut. “Every child dreams of becoming an astronaut at some point. As a kid, the more sci-fi movies I watched, the more I wanted to be in space,” he shared, adding that while at the time he wasn’t sure about becoming an astronaut, he always wanted to be an aircraft pilot. “During my undergraduate years, I made up my mind that I wanted to be a pilot. Through high school, my goal was essentially getting into the Air Force Academy. I joined the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado,” he said during the interview.
A few years after joining the US Air Force, Chari moved to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his Master’s degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics. The astronaut has accumulated more than 2,500 hours of flight time on 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.
Into the space
In 2017, while he was serving as the Commander of the 461st Flight Test Squadron and the Director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force, Chari received a letter notifying him of his selection for NASA Astronaut Group 22. He was sent for a two-year-long rigorous training programme and in 2020 was selected to be a part of the Artemis Team. It was around the same time that he was selected for a space mission, SpaceX Crew-3, which he commanded.
“There are several very accomplished team members in the SpaceX Crew 3 mission. So, I believe my role will be similar to that of a coach. A coach doesn’t have to teach the player how to play, they already know that. He just has to find the best way to place each player to make sure the team wins. And that’s what I will be doing,” he said, talking about his roles and responsibilities in the Crew 3 mission. Chari is the first NASA rookie to command a spaceflight since Joe Engle, who commanded the STS-2 mission in 1981.
On November 10, 2021, Chari docked at the ISS for his six-month-long stint in the Earth’s orbit. Speaking about the view from the ISS, the astronaut said, “We see numerous sunrises and sunsets in a day. The atmosphere is beautifully illuminated and I love watching that the most. Everything we know, understand, and love on Earth is just a razor-thin layer of air.”
While on the ISS, Chari worked on over 300 experiments involving plant science, looking at different methods of watering and irrigating the plants. He also researched the stem cells of cotton plants. Although he enjoyed working at the ISS, living in zero gravity did feel uncomfortable at the beginning of the mission. “Zero gravity affects the body both physically and mentally. But, what I found the most difficult was multitasking. It takes a while for your brain to adapt to this environment. You also have to get used to walking on every surface in the space, including the ceiling and walls. It takes a while but you get used to it,” the astronaut shared.
The journey beyond
Chari has been involved in several activities after his return to Earth on May 6, 2022. After resuming duty in Houston, the astronaut has visited several schools and been part of many social events, encouraging young children to ‘go find their own path’. “All of our paths are completely different,” the astronaut said during a school summit at Iowa, adding, “If you’re trying to be an astronaut or trying to go to space, the last thing you should do is look at our bios and try to do that, because we already have that.”
The astronaut, who is working on the Artemis mission, wishes to associate with ISRO in the future. He shared, “NASA and ISRO have a long history of cooperation, going back to the early days of the space age when the two space agencies worked on sounding rockets. The cooperation continues today as we work on joint space and Earth science missions. I am really looking forward to ISRO’s first human spaceflight mission.”