What does it take to make an astronaut?
Now that plans for Gaganyaan, India's first manned mission to space, are getting firmed up, the next focus lies on what the four test pilots of Indian Air Force will have to do, before they are certified fit to fly to space.
The four pilots chosen for the task are headed to Russia by the end of this month for specialised training. Not all of them may actually go to space – ISRO may ultimately decide to send just one of them as the risk is high. But, that is only generic training. When they come back, they would go through mission-specific training that will take them through what the crew capsule built by India will hold. Ahead of their mission, ISRO plans to send two unmanned missions into space, which will house a humanoid robot that will perform and react just as a human would do. India's manned mission is scheduled before August 2022 in order to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the country's independence.
On Wednesday, ISRO unveiled 'Vyommitra’, the robot that will be sent on the unmanned missions. On Thursday as part its three-day symposium on human spaceflight, ISRO took a step further and hosted a brainstorming session with astronauts from around the world – on what their training was, and how they learned. "We have lost four manned missions (from different agencies over the years) earlier, but that is not to be mistaken for (bad) luck. It was human error," said Jean-Francois Clervoy, a French astronaut. An engineer and astronaut with French space agency CNES, Clervoy is a veteran of three missions with NASA.
He added that it's not just the quality of the astronaut that is important, but the crew as a whole. "We have all kind of engineers and scientists, chemists and doctors who have become astronauts. Once you are an astronaut, you all do the same job. But it is important to diversify the crew, if they are all from the same background, they will all think the same way. If they are from different fields, that would increase the ways they look at things," Clervoy added.
India has chosen only four test pilots of the IAF in its first shortlist. Typically, the first mission by any space agency would look for potential astronauts with flying experience. They would undergo training in how to function or even just adapt to zero-gravity and weightlessness, put on rotating chairs and tilted positions everyday so their bodies get used the idea that they would be floating in space. Fighter pilots, who are already used to flying in different speeds with their aircrafts in different positions, would thus find it easiest to adapt.
Isolation training is another important psychological training that astronauts go through. Being alone, and not having your family and friends around, can have its own emotional impact, specially for long-duration missions like a journey to Mars or the moon. Ravish Malhotra, retired Air Commodore who underwent astronaut training along with Capt Rakesh Sharma three decades back, failed to actually travel to space. They pointed out that the Indian astronauts are up for some rigorous training this year and next.
Space exploration, to that extent, could also bring countries together as this is one area that has got the world's undivided attention. "From space, though you can make out your country, you cannot see borders or boundaries from one nation to another. We need to look at the role of space in bringing the world together. Countries need to look at ways of sustainable economic development to make our planet a better place to live on," he said. The International Space Station may be funded by just five countries, but almost a hundred countries can do experiments through this, he pointed out. German astronaut Thomas Reiter further said that space exploration will only get more interesting amid reports of NASA possibly finding an exoplanet the size of earth recently.
"The moment we will find life is there in other places, it will make space exploration more exciting. if we are able to bring samples back from Mars, all these (challenges) has got humans to push our boundaries,” he said. Ambitious missions to Mars would entail other challenges, such as how to carry food for a Mars mission. "A trip to Mars could take three years, we cannot carry food for so long, so we need to create food for that period," said astronaut Alvin Drew, while talking about the psychological impact of undertaking such a long, desolate journey.