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Raja Chari of Cedar Falls is headed to space: A Q&A with the astronaut on how he got there
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Raja Chari of Cedar Falls is headed to space: A Q&A with the astronaut on how he got there

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CEDAR FALLS — If you think of yourself, like Raja Chari did as a kid, as “kind of a nerd,” take heart: You, too, may one day be able to fly into space. In fact, you may already have a leg up on the competition thanks to living in Iowa, Chari said.

It helped the Cedar Falls native and 1995 Waterloo Columbus graduate be picked as a NASA astronaut in 2017.

Columbus to honor Chari

“Growing up in Iowa, I think, postured me well,” said Chari, who now lives in suburban Houston with his wife and three children. “What I think I took from Iowa was just sort of getting it done, the work ethic of not complaining, just, ‘Here’s the problem, and let’s not talk and complain about it, let’s just go get it done.’”

NASA to send Cedar Falls native to the moon

He’ll fly to the International Space Station later this year — likely in September or October — and maybe to the moon: He was among the pool of astronauts that could go on an Artemis mission to the moon in the future.

“Nothing worth doing is easy. I tell my kids that all the time, and it’s very true,” Chari said. “And I think, whether it was trying to struggle through being bad at sports at Columbus, or just survive the academics of the AP classes, I think I was well prepared, and I think the Iowa upbringing helped a lot.”

Chari talked about his upbringing and education, what it takes to become an astronaut and where he’d go if he could go anywhere in space.

You’ve been assigned as one of three to a SpaceX mission to the International Space Station this fall, which will be your first spaceflight, serving as commander. How did you feel when that was announced?

That was pretty special. Obviously, when we get picked to come to NASA, that’s kind of the goal: to eventually fly in space. But then you get so immersed in the training and the day-to-day. After you’re done with the initial phase of training, you have, like, a normal job. And you get so immersed in that that, actually, when I got called about getting assigned, it was definitely a bolt out of the blue. I was very, very happy to have that happen.

I was working with both Space X and Boeing — that was my job, doing testing for the programs. And so then to actually get to fly in one of those vehicles is pretty cool, and pretty special to have met all the people and know all of them in a working capacity.

There’s three of us, and we’re still waiting on our fourth seat. Matthias (Maurer) is the European astronaut with us, and then Tom Marshburn — he’ll be actually one of the few people who’s flown on a shuttle and now a commercial vehicle.

Sometime between late September and mid-October is kind of the target (launch date). Crew 2 launches on April 22 — or that’s the scheduled date, weather dependent — and Crew 1, which is the mission that’s up there now that returns about a week after that. And so once they get back, that will give us a lot more insight into our launch date, because a lot is predicated, since Space X has to refurbish things and get data back.

You were born in Milwaukee but were raised in Cedar Falls. When did you move here, and what was the reason for your family’s move?

We actually first moved down pretty much as soon as I was born. My dad got a job down at John Deere, so that’s what brought us to Cedar Falls, and then we lived over by the Ice House originally, actually right by the train tracks. ... It was downtown — there’s not actually houses there anymore. It might be where the Little Red Schoolhouse is, I think?

And then we bounced around ... I saw a little bit of everything in Cedar Falls.

You graduated from Columbus in 1995. Tell me about your time there.

To be honest, I was kind of a nerd. But i think the benefit of growing up in Iowa, and Cedar Falls/Waterloo especially, you have the benefits of great education but small-town schools where you get to do a little bit of everything and you can participate in just about everything. I don’t think I really appreciated that until we had kids of our own, especially (as they’re) growing up in metro Houston, it’s really hard as a kid to be in multiple sports or activities when there’s so many kids at the school. So I look back on that fondly, being able to do things like band, and be on the track team and run cross country.

I think I did a lot of things, probably not all of them well, most of them not great, but I think I put my focus on studies which, a lot of, I attribute to my dad in terms of his whole upbringing and lifestyle was such that that’s definitely not something you take for granted. And the idea of education being a path to success and, in his case, a path to a better life. And so I think that was definitely something ingrained in me at a very young age.

I did student government, I played the French horn, I ran cross country very poorly, I played tennis mediocre. But just the fact that you have a chance to go out on these teams and play was invaluable, just to actually have a little bit of that broadening experience.

Did you know that you wanted to become a pilot, or become an astronaut, at that time?

The astronaut thing, I would say, maybe in the back of my mind, but I don’t think I honestly attributed much likelihood to it. I think as a grade school student everyone has that kind of, ‘Oh, I wanna be an astronaut.’ And then as I got older, I probably stopped believing that was realistic.

But for the pilot thing, yeah, somewhere around junior high I became really interested in that. And I definitely remember freshman year at Columbus being very interested in learning about the service academies and what options there were there, so that was very much an active interest. And I think part of the reason I stuck with some of the sports I did so badly at was more the ability to try to get some exposure to that, like specifically cross country. I was not good, but I knew that running and endurance was something I had to work on, and it gave me a chance to do that.

You double majored in astronautical engineering and engineering science at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Why did you choose that path?

The Air Force Academy is one of the few places where they have specifically astronautical engineering, so I was able to do that there. At the time, my thought was, at a minimum, if I can’t ever fly or go to space myself, I at least will be the person working on building the stuff that’s gonna take people there.

It was an amazing experience. We got to build a small satellite there, which was great, so I definitely burned the midnight oil at the academy. But looking back on it, it definitely was a great place to learn to multitask and kind of just keep your head down and get stuff done.

You went on to get your master’s at MIT, then graduated from the Naval Test Pilot School as well as U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Was that all training toward a specific goal, like becoming an astronaut?

MIT was kind of an offshoot of astronautical engineering and a chance to keep doing that. And then the Naval Test Pilot School, that was definitely towards the path of being a test pilot. The Army Command and General Staff College is something we do in the military around that phase of our career, where it’s more learning about how you develop strategy and doctrine.

I don’t think it was until post-Test Pilot School that I actually thought it was realistic to want to end up at NASA. I think one of those things, ‘Oh yeah, that’d be great to do that.” ... And then I loved flying itself. So as I kind of progressed in that and realized you could do this really cool thing, and the Test Pilot community of doing both those things — combining engineering and science and flying — that seemed like a very logical extension of what I wanted to do.

Post-Test Pilot School it dawned on me like, ‘Oh, this is actually somewhat, I would say, a normal path.’ A lot of the pilots that are in the astronaut core came from Test Pilot background. I’m finding myself in a situation where this is not so much a pipe dream as actually a path that you might as well apply for.

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So becoming an astronaut was sort of an accidental path?

I mean, there’s definitely some intent of what I want to do. I think if you talk to many of my classmates, it’s not so much accidental as picking something you really liked to do and then realizing that also overlapped with the same qualities that NASA was looking for.

What we tell people all the time who apply is: Don’t try to look at what people are doing in the astronaut office and then go model your life after that, because you’ll wind up unhappy and probably not getting picked up anyways. I think the common thread for all of us is we’ve all done things that we’ve really liked and are really passionate about in our careers, and it happened to also overlap with qualities that NASA was looking for.

Tell me about what sparked your interest in flying in the first place.

I was a big fan of “Star Wars” at the time — I think the idea of being in the air was fascinating to me. I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say “Top Gun” probably had something to do with it, but that’s a Navy movie, and I loathe to admit that as an Air Force pilot.

My mom said I would take the curtain clips and then bend them to look like little planes, and I’d try to sell them to people as X-wing fighters, so I think the Star Wars theme at the time was a big draw for me. And I think just the idea of being in the air and looking up, and the idea of being in that, was intriguing to me.

I think the other thing that stuck with me, that I still remember very distinctly, was at St. Pat’s, where I’d gone to grade school, and one year getting new science tables, and being fascinated — you know, it seems like a minor thing — but with those new tables, you could set up new experiments and you could do all kinds of cool things in science class. So I think just the idea of exploring became very interesting to me, and exploring in the air seemed like, that’s a far out place.

I’m actually surprised since you’ve got a pilot background that you were not assigned as the pilot to the ISS, that you were assigned as commander.

I’d be happy with either — any seat going up there, in general.

What’s your role as commander going to entail, and how will that differ from pilot?

In the Space X vehicle, a lot of the actual flying part is automated, so as the commander job, a lot of what I’m doing is backing up that, if we did actually have to fly, and then sort of maintaining the overall mission priorities and timeline. The person in the pilot seat is kind of watching the subsystems of the vehicle, and as we have malfunctions, being able to help troubleshoot those subsystems while I’m worried about the overall vehicle control.

At the end of the day, I’m just happy. It’s a great crew. Tom and Matthias are amazing to work with. With Tom’s experience, that’s been super helpful as we go through training. It’s just been really exciting to learn. And a lot of what we do actually training-wise is being able to do each other’s roles, so there’s been a lot of — obviously we hope it doesn’t happen — but there’s a lot of contingencies: OK, what if this person is incapacitated, what would you have to pick up? So we are cross-trained pretty well to be able to do any of the tasks in the vehicle.

It looks like NASA wants to test the challenges of long-duration spaceflight, and you’ll be up there for six months. What will you be doing while you’re up there?

The ISS is essentially an orbiting national laboratory, and so I’d say part of the science is science on people, and specifically on us, and understanding the effects of long-duration space.

The challenge with long-duration space is we have one person that’s flown over a year, maybe tens that have flown for six months. So it’s really hard to say with very much accuracy what will happen as we go further, and go to the moon to stay, and go to Mars. And so there’s a good chunk of science that’s dedicated to what’s happening to your body, and specifically what’s been added is a lot more research of the gut biome.

They’re finding out, at least terrestrially on Earth, there’s a whole lot more you can predict and understand about disease and health by an individual’s gut and what’s in there. And so now we’re trying to extrapolate that to space, and specifically what is it on Earth and how does it change in space, and what does that say about the long-term health implications, and what can we predict? So that’s kind of that half.

The other half of the science is a whole slew of things, from combustion research to materials research — all the things that you would have in a normal science lab on the ground. What’s unique about space is we focus a lot on things that are different in microgravity that maybe you can then scale on Earth. So some examples: Flame on the Earth goes straight up, because there’s air currents and a very definitive bottom and top. Whereas in space, flame is more of a ball, and obviously you have to be really careful with flame research on a space station.

One of the potentials is for a clean-burning flame, and if you can have a clean burning, low-carbon output flame. Think about the amount of things that are generating carbon emissions on Earth; that could be a complete game changer. So what we’re looking for is a lot of what we call basic science that leads to papers and further research of then, hey, if we can show this is possible, can you replicate that on Earth?

What was it like learning you are eligible, at least, to go on an Artemis mission to the moon by 2024?

I would say that’s pretty special. I think all of us here, I think in the country, are largely inspired by Apollo. And so to be a part of the effort and the team to go back to the moon and go back to stay is amazing, and I think for me, what’s cool is the chance to work with such a great group of people.

The people of NASA are amazing to me. That was honestly one of the biggest reasons I reapplied in 2017 from 2013. I had that point in my career I’d come to realize that it’s not so much what you’re doing, it’s who you’re doing it with. When I looked back on my Air Force career, it was more about who I was working with — I didn’t remember the exact day-to-day details of jobs I had, but I definitely remember the people I was working with. And it struck me that I’d like to work for the rest of my life in a place where those people would be the thing I remembered.

The really neat thing about Artemis is now it’s part of a team of everyone very singularly focused on a great goal for humanity. It’s kind of mind-boggling when you think about it, like, why do you go to work in the morning? It’s because we’re trying to go live on another planet. I mean, it’s a really inspirational thing to get up and to get to go into work and be a part of.

If you could travel anywhere in space, where would you go?

Mars would be high on my list, I think just because the idea of being on another planet — granted, it’s smaller than Earth — but the idea of it being somewhere where there is enough gravity that we could move around, and the idea that there is, we’re pretty positive there’s water there, and so just the potential of going there and becoming a multi-planetary species.

The other thing that’s really most intriguing to me about going to the moon to stay or Mars is the idea that the technology we develop to do that has implications for the Earth. It would solve so many of the resource constraints we have here on the Earth and make life better for, really, the whole planet. If we can solve somebody’s problem of reprocessing water, or cleaning up the atmosphere, (that can) make everyone’s lives here better. It’s not just about being able to live on another planet, it’s really about what we can do on the planet we live on.

For those wanting to become an astronaut from Cedar Falls themselves, what’s your advice to them?

The degree requirements require some kind of engineering or science background. Definitely within that, there’s tons of fields. But, at a minimum, I think you need to try to find something within the engineering and science realm that you can enjoy and be part of.

I think the other thing I would advise people is, there’s no spacecraft that’s just one person, at least not currently; maybe someday there will be. So being a part of a team is a big part of it, and specifically being on a team that lives in a really confined space for months to years on end, where the bathroom is also the living room and is also the kitchen. You have to be OK with that and not be a jerk.

It’s important, obviously, to do science and engineering, but you also have to be in activities where you get to interact with people. Because it’s not unusual to see some brilliant people in whatever their field is, but then they just can’t really interact in a social setting. And so you have to be able to find that balance of being operationally minded, being able to solve problems, but also being able to work with a team, ‘cause if you’re kind of your own lone person, you’re not gonna do well in a capsule where you are forced into close proximity with other people.

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