Narendra Modi wants to achieve full autonomy in manned spaceflight by 2025 after successfully landing a probe on the moon in 2023.

These are the astronauts who will make India the world's fourth largest space power

El primer ministro Modi ha presentado en sociedad a los cuatro militares seleccionados para volar al espacio en una cápsula fabricada en India y les ha impuesto las alas de astronauta - PHOTO/Narendra Modi/X
Prime Minister Modi has unveiled the four military personnel selected to fly into space in an Indian-made capsule, and has given them astronaut wings - PHOTO/Narendra Modi/X

India's prime minister has just unravelled the Delhi government's best-kept secret since 2020.  

  1. Basic cosmonaut training in Moscow
  2. Advanced training in the United States

The leader of the Executive, Narendra Modi, has officially unveiled and presented to his more than 1 billion compatriots the four members of the first class of astronauts who are called to lead the first manned space flight from the territory of the most populous nation on Earth.

All four are male, military, airmen and test pilots of the Indian Air Force, IAF. Among them are those who will be chosen to fly into space in 2025 aboard a domestically manufactured space capsule, which will be launched into orbit by a launcher developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation, ISRO.  

La cápsula tripulada debe alcanzar una órbita de 400 kilómetros, donde permanecerá entre tres y siete días hasta amerizar en el océano Indico sustentada por dos paracaídas - PHOTO/ISRO
The manned capsule should reach an orbit of 400 kilometres, where it will remain for three to seven days before splashing down in the Indian Ocean, supported by two parachutes - PHOTO/ISRO

The launch ceremony, presided over by 73-year-old Narendra Modi, took place on 27 February at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, which specialises in rocket and spacecraft development and is located in the far southwestern state of Kerala. The prime minister stressed at the nationally televised event that "these are not just four names or four people, these are four forces that will send the hopes of 1.4 billion Indians into space".  

ISRO's manned space flight project is called "Gaganyaan", which in English means "sky ship". In its preliminary design, the Gaganyaan space capsule is intended to accommodate three people. But the fact that four astronauts have applied means there is a possibility that the maiden flight planned for 2025 will carry two crew members, with two more as alternates. Or even a single-seat mission? 

Los cuatro aviadores han recibido la formación básica para volar al espacio en el Centro de Entrenamiento de Cosmonautas Yuri Gagarin de Moscú y la completarán en Centro Espacial Johnson de la NASA en Houston, Texas - PHOTO/TsPK
The four aviators have received basic training for space flight at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Moscow and will complete it at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas - PHOTO/TsPK

Basic cosmonaut training in Moscow

Modi has reminded his fellow citizens that "an Indian has already travelled to space 40 years ago". It was Rakesh Sharma, a retired IAF colonel, now 75 years old. On 3 April 1984, he took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with two Soviet cosmonauts in a Soyuz capsule, which docked with the Salyut-7 orbital station, where he stayed for nearly eight days. "But now the time is ours, the countdown is ours and so is the rocket," he stressed. 

The Prime Minister expressed his satisfaction "to have the privilege of meeting and talking to these astronauts and introducing them to the country". Those chosen for glory are four veteran aviators who have accumulated thousands of flying hours in Russian-origin Sukhoi Su-30MKI, MiG-29 and MiG-21 fighter jets, but manufactured by India's premier aircraft industry. They are Colonels Prasnath Balakrishnan Nair, 47, Ajit Krishnan (42), Angad Pratap (42) and Lt Col Shubhanshu Shukla, 38. 

The initial selection trials took place throughout 2018 and 2019. More than 500 pilots appeared for the physical, medical and psychological tests set by the ISRO and IAF. The list was whittled down to just over 200 shortlisted pilots, which then grew to 30, then a dozen to just four.  

Esqueleto del robot humanoide con rasgos femeninos de nombre Vyommitra, que debe servir de conejillo de indias en el vuelo de prueba sin tripulación previsto para antes de finales de 2024 - PHOTO/ISRO/X
Skeleton of the humanoid robot with female features named Vyommitra, which is to serve as a guinea pig for the unmanned test flight planned for before the end of 2024 - PHOTO/ISRO/X

An agreement signed between ISRO and Russia's state-owned Glavkosmos in June 2019 saw the final quartet sent to Moscow's Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre - in Russian, TsPK - where from February 2020 they received basic training to take part in spaceflight in manned Soyuz capsules.  

At TsPK, they underwent the training modules that all Russian and third-country cosmonauts applying for support from Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, must pass. They include practice in weightlessness in parabolic flights with Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft, flight procedures in simulators, and survival courses in snow, water and arid areas. These are so that, in the event of an emergency landing in any inhospitable geographical area, they can stay alive until their rescuers arrive.  

Narendra Modi observa el interior del simulador de vuelo de la cápsula de la misión Gaganyaan durante su estancia del 27 de febrero en el Centro Espacial Vikram Sarabhai, en el estado de Kerala - PHOTO/ISRO/X
Narendra Modi looks inside the flight simulator of the Gaganyaan mission capsule during his 27 February stay at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Kerala state - PHOTO/ISRO/X

Advanced training in the United States

The sources consulted differ as to the completion of the total training period. Some cite March and others October 2021, as the training cycle was delayed by the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which also delayed the preparation and development plans in India for the projects linked to the "Gaganyaan" programme. 

Since the end of the Indian airmen's stay at the TsPK, the ISRO confirms that the four "have continued their training at the IAF Institute of Aerospace Medicine and Manned Flight Centre", which opened in August 2019 in Bangalore. There, they work out in "theory-practical classes to learn about the Indian-made spacecraft that is to take them into space, flight simulators, physical training sessions and yoga". 

El presidente de la ISRO, Sreedhara Panicker Somanath (izquierda) explica a Modi las características de la cápsula y del lanzador nacional LVM3 reconfigurado para vuelos tripulados - PHOTO/ISRO/X 
ISRO Chairman Sreedhara Panicker Somanath (left) explains to Modi the features of the capsule and the reconfigured LVM3 national launcher for manned flight - PHOTO/ISRO/X

ISRO's immediate plans are for US NASA to provide "advanced training" to its four astronauts. It will begin in the coming months at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. It follows the June 2023 pact between Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden, which was extended by a technical document signed between the space agencies in Washington and New Delhi. 

The bilateral agreement calls for NASA to allow ISRO to book a private space flight - possibly with Axiom Space - to the International Space Station. The Indian astronaut will stay at the orbital complex for at least a week - negotiations are underway - and conduct scientific tests provided by Indian universities and technology institutes.  

Tras su periodo de formación en Rusia, los cuatro astronautas están adscritos al Centro de Vuelos Espaciales Tripulados que la ISRO posee en Bangalore en 2019 - PHOTO/ISRO
After their training period in Russia, the four astronauts will be attached to ISRO's Manned Space Flight Centre in Bangalore in 2019 - PHOTO/ISRO

The first "Gaganyaan" mission is scheduled for an as yet unannounced date in 2025. The national launcher LVM3 has been reconfigured for human spaceflight. The manned capsule is expected to reach an orbit at 400 kilometres, where it will remain for three to seven days before splashing down in the Indian Ocean. An unmanned flight of the capsule is planned before the end of the year, after tests of the emergency escape system and procedures for recovering the spacecraft at sea have been completed.

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