KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA — This weekend, early on Halloween morning, an Iowan will be rocketing into orbit in a SpaceX capsule for a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station.
Cedar Falls native Raja Chari and three other astronauts are scheduled for launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday at 1:21 AM/Central from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Chari, an Air Force colonel, says we have to continue to explore and expand our species beyond this planet, while also learning to make the Earth even more hospitable.
“The ability to recycle water, the ability to recycle waste, the ability to get resources out of the things around you, all of those things have direct applications to life here on Earth,” Chari says. “Some of the medical advances in remote medical procedures we have to do in order to be able to sustain ourselves there are also things we can use here for less-developed areas that don’t have access to doctors.”
This will be Chari’s first trip to space and he’s been named mission commander, NASA’s first rookie commander since 1973 and the first Iowan in space since Peggy Whitson’s last mission in 2017. Chari is among 18 astronauts named to the Artemis program, which is destined for the Moon. Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.
In a Radio Iowa interview last winter, Chari says his concern is not whether he makes it to the Moon himself, but instead whether he contributes to keeping the progress of the Artemis project moving forward.
“I’m personally probably too old to wind up being on Mars, but I know that the person who’s going to be on Mars and living on Mars is potentially in our office, or is potentially walking around on the street thinking about applying to NASA to become an astronaut,” Chari says. “That’s really it for me, keeping this momentum going, keeping that hard-wired part of our DNA to keep going further, faster, higher — beyond what we know.”
As a boy, Chari says his parents instilled in him the belief that a good education is what you need to succeed, and he earned degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from the U.S. Air Force Academy and MIT. Chari’s mother was a nurse and a teacher, while his father came to the U.S. from India to get his master’s degree and spent his entire career at John Deere in Waterloo.
While Chari will likely be among the first people since 1972 to set foot on the Moon, he would also be the first-ever person of Indian descent to reach that pinnacle. “That’s definitely a source of pride for me in terms of what (my dad) sacrificed for me and that’s a lot of my motivation, why I do what I do,” Chari says. “It’s not really so much about me being on the Moon or me being in space, it’s really more what can we do as an agency and as people to help out the next generation.”
Chari and his wife, Holly — a Cedar Falls native – have three children, ranging in age from seven to 12. Chari says he’s continuing to have conversations with his kids about his fantastic — and dangerous — career. A former Air Force test pilot who flew combat missions over Iraq, the 44-year-old says he teaches his little ones about risks versus rewards.
“Not wearing your seatbelt, that’s stupid, that’s a risk, but there’s no good thing that comes out of it, right? It’s dumb,” Chari says. “But, things like riding in a rocket, yes, it’s risky but there’s really good things that come out of it in terms of technology and the good it does for other people. None of us want to go do something silly and dangerous. That’s not what our goal is. Our goal is to make it as safe as possible.”
Only seven previous Iowans have been astronauts, including Laurel Clark of Ames, who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy of 2003. The other Iowans who’ve been in space include five shuttle astronauts: Peggy Whitson of Mount Ayr, Jim Kelly of Burlington, George Nelson of Charles City, Loren Shriver of Jefferson, and David Hilmers of Clinton.
Iowa’s first astronaut was Walter Cunningham of Creston who flew aboard Apollo 7.