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Cedar Falls native graduates from NASA astronaut training

Cedar Falls native graduates from NASA astronaut training

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WATERLOO – As a young child, Cedar Falls native Raja Chari set his goals high – really high. He talked of being an astronaut to his mother and would even convince neighborhood kids his bent drapery hooks were pieces from spacecrafts.

On Friday, the Waterloo Columbus High School graduate made his far-reaching goals possible by graduating from basic training through NASA. He is now eligible to fly in space.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Chari told the Courier in an interview after the graduation ceremony at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. “I never, ever thought I would be chosen.”

Chari, a U.S. Air Force colonel, is one of 11 NASA astronaut trainees who graduated Friday under the agency’s Artemis Moon program. Chari and his counterparts were selected out of a record-breaking pool of 18,000 applicants. They will join the active astronaut corps, beginning careers in exploration that may take them to the International Space Station, on missions to the moon under the Artemis program, or someday, Mars.

“Even if I’m not the person to go to Mars, it’s not like we’re going to miss the opportunity. We as a nation, as a world, are planning to go there and stay, and create a presence as an outpost to go farther,” Chari said.

The Artemis program aims to send humans back to the moon by 2024 for the first time since 1972. NASA is shooting for a trip to Mars sometime in the 2030s.

“It’s a unique time in history right now,” he said. “It’s really an energy we haven’t seen since Apollo.”

Also known as Project Apollo, the mission was the third U.S. human spaceflight program carried out by NASA, which succeeded in landing the first humans on the Moon from 1969 to 1972

Chari said he is grateful to be a part of the overall mission of exploring outerspace. Astronauts have been discovering groundbreaking science on a daily basis, he said, including new DNA discoveries, new materials and reclaiming water we thought couldn’t be used, to name a few.

“From the universe to our planet to ourselves, the idea and potential to be a part of that discovery is what’s amazing to me,” he said.

Born in Milwaukee, Wis., Chari was raised in Cedar Falls and attended St. Patrick Catholic School. His father moved to the U.S. from India and worked for John Deere.

He is married to Holly Schaffter Chari, also a Cedar Falls native, and the couple has three children. His mother, Peggy Chari, lives in Cedar Falls.

“I definitely attribute a lot of my value structure to the upbringing there and the sense of community in Waterloo and Cedar Falls,” he said.

Chari graduated from Columbus High School in Waterloo in 1995 and earned a bachelor’s degree in astronautical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. He earned a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., and graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Md. He then graduated from U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

At the time of his selection in June 2017, Chari was a colonel select in the U.S. Air Force, serving as the commander of the 461st Flight Test Squadron and the director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force. He has accumulated more than 2,000 hours of flight time in the 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.

Chari’s awards include the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Aerial Achievement Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Air Force Achievement Medal, an Iraq Campaign Medal, a Korean Defense Service Medal and the Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal. He was named distinguished graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Undergraduate Pilot Training, and the F-15E Formal Training Unit.

He said his astronaut training and military background has taught him the importance of being a team player.

“Imagine spending 6 months in your office with three of your friends, or not your friends, and you have to figure out how to live with those three people for 24 hours a day for days on end. It can be very difficult when you’re working in high stress environments,” he said.

Chari will return to Waterloo Jan. 21 to speak at Columbus High School.

Photographer Brandon Pollock’s favorite photos of 2019.

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