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Gaganyaan: PM Modi announces names of 4 astronauts for India's maiden human spaceflight mission

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hands-over wings to astronauts-designate Shubanshu Shukla, Prashanth Balakrishnan Nair, Angad Prathap and Ajit Krishnan who have been selected to be the astronauts on India's first crewed mission to space 'Gaganyan Mission', at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), in Thiruvananthapuram, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. A PTI Photo

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM (PTI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi today announced the names of the four astronauts--all IAF fighter pilots--for India's ambitious maiden human spaceflight mission Gaganyaan scheduled for next year.

The Gaganyaan project envisages demonstration of human spaceflight capability by launching a crew of three members to an intended low earth orbit of 400 km for a three-day mission and bring them back safely to earth by landing in Indian sea waters, according to the Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO). If the indigenous space project estimated to cost Rs 90 billion succeeds, India will become only the fourth country to send a human into space after the Soviet Union, the US and China.

Modi, who disclosed the names of the four astronaut-designates during his visit to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre(VSSC) at Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram, also handed the 'astronaut wings' to the pilots of the Indian Air Force(IAF), who are currently undergoing rigorous training at various facilities in the country. They also underwent training for 13 months in Russia.

Addressing the audience at the space centre, the prime minister introduced to the nation Group Captains Prasanth Balakrishnan Nair, Angad Pratap, Ajit Krishnan, and Wing Commander Shubhanshu Shukla. The IAF pilots aged between 39-48 years have a flying experience in the range of nearly 2,000-3,000 hours, according to IAF officials. Two of them are recipients of the prestigious 'Sword of Honour'.

Modi hailed the astronauts as "four forces" representing the aspirations of India's 140 crore people.

He also emphasised the significance of the country's first crewed space mission, noting that after four decades, an Indian is poised to venture into space.

"This time around, the countdown, the timing, and even the rocket would be ours."

Reflecting on the symbolic importance of the mission, Modi described the astronauts as not merely individuals but as four 'Shakti' carrying the hopes and dreams of 140 crore Indians into space. He asserted that their names have become intertwined with India's success.

Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan and ISRO chairman S Somanath were among others who were present at the ceremony.

Modi expressed immense satisfaction that the majority of components for the Gaganyaan mission are manufactured in India, underscoring the nation's self-reliance in space exploration.

He lauded the dedication of the pilots to training, which included the practice of Yoga, and hailed them as representatives of India's resilient 'Amrit' generation, known for their unwavering determination and ability to overcome challenges.

Modi also inaugurated ISRO's three major space infrastructure projects worth around Rs 1,800 crore during his visit to the VSSC.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in a post on X extended his wishes to the four pilots for getting selected for the ground-breaking mission.

"I am confident that they will rise to the occasion and help India in realising the dream of its first #indigenous manned space flight."

Neighbours of Gp Capt Nair's home in Nenmara village in Palakkad broke into cheers after the prime minister's announcement.

"I was sitting in front of the television till now to see the prime minister announcing his name. Prasanth was such a good child...I have known him since he was four or five years old," an elated neighbour told a television channel.

Gp Capt Nair was born in Kerala in 1976 and is an alumnus of the National Defence Academy(NDA), and also a recipient of the 'Sword of Honour' -- an honour given to the best all-round cadet -- at the Air Force Academy, an IAF spokesperson said.

He was commissioned into the fighter stream of the IAF in December 1998.

"A Cat A flying instructor and a test pilot with approximately 3,000 hrs of flying experience, he has flown a variety of aircraft, including Su-30 MKI, MiG-21, MiG-29, Hawk, Dornier and An-32," the official said.

Gp Capt Nair is also an alumnus of the United States Staff College, the official said, adding he has commanded a premier fighter Su-30 Sqadron.

Gp Capt Krishnan, also an alumnus of the NDA, was born in Chennai in 1982. He is a recipient of the President's Gold Medal and the 'Sword of Honour' at Air Force Academy.

"He was commissioned in June 2003 in the fighter stream of the IAF. A flying instructor and a test pilot with nearly 2,900 hrs of flying experience, he has flown variety of aircraft, including Su-30 MKI, MiG-21, MiG-21, Mig-29, Jaguar, Dornier and An-32," the official said.

Gp Capt Pratap was born in Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh in 1982. Also an alumnus of the NDA, he was commissioned in December 2004 in the fighter stream of the IAF.

He is a flying instructor and a test pilot with approximately 2,000 hours of flying experience and has flown Su-30 MKI, MiG-21, MiG-29, Jaguar, Hawk, Dornier and An-32, among other aircraft, the official said.

Wg Cdr Shukla was born in Lucknow in 1985 and an alumnus of the NDA who was commissioned in June 2006 into the fighter stream of the IAF.

A fighter combat leader and a test pilot with nearly 2,000 hours of flying experience, he has flown Su-30 MKI, MiG-21, MiG-29, Jaguar, Hawk, Dornier and An-32, among other aircraft.

According to the ISRO website, the pre-requisites for Gaganyaan mission include development of many critical technologies including human-rated launch vehicle for carrying crew safely to space, life support system to provide an earth-like environment to crew in space, crew emergency escape provision and evolving crew management aspects for training, recovery and rehabilitation of crew.

In his speech, Modi said India's space sector's contributions were not only sowing the seeds of scientific temperament among the younger generations, but also providing an impetus for the country to emerge as a global player in the 21st century.

He said that few nations have achieved the feat of reaching Mars in the first attempt, launching more than 100 satellites in a single mission, landing on the south pole of the Moon and the successful insertion of Aditya L1 solar probe in its orbit 15 lakh km from Earth.

"All of you are opening new doors of future possibilities," he told the ISRO team, adding that it was estimated that India's space economy will grow five-fold and touch 44 billion dollars in the next 10 years.

He said India was becoming a global commercial hub in the field of space and in the coming days, it will once again go to the Moon, retrieve samples from there, and by 2035 the country will have its own space station. "In this Amrit Kaal, an Indian astronaut will land on the Moon in an Indian rocket."

Modi emphasised on the "important role" played by women in the country's space programme. "Whether it is Chandrayaan or the Gaganyaan, no such project can be imagined without women scientists," he said, and pointed out that more than 500 women were in leadership positions in the ISRO.

He also spoke about the celebrity attention that the four pilots may get after their selection, and said this could create disturbance in their training. "I urge all people, including media professionals, to allow them to do their duties without hindrances. It's the beginning of the real story. Let's support them to the fullest."

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