Raja Chari (NASA photo)

Out of more than 18,000 applicants, NASA is naming a dozen new astronauts to the corps including an Iowa native.

Thirty-nine-year-old Raja Chari grew up in Cedar Falls and has degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from the U.S. Air Force Academy and MIT. He’s a lieutenant colonel and a test pilot for the Air Force and flew combat missions over Iraq.

Chari was told a few weeks ago that he was among the final 12 astronaut candidates but was ordered to only share the secret with his immediate family.

“I was able to call my wife and that’s when there was screaming on her end and I was still in my office with all of the folks right outside the door,” Chari says, laughing. “I had to just do a little happy dance in place. It was about all I could do at the time to not totally give everything away.”

Chari’s wife, Holly, is a Cedar Falls native and they have three children. His mother still lives in Cedar Falls. Chari graduated from Waterloo Columbus High School in 1995 before heading to the academy. He admits he hasn’t always dreamed of becoming an astronaut but learning to fly was one of his early goals, along with studying science.

“Right around eighth grade, we got a new science lab and new science tables in that lab and that was a very big deal to an eighth grader,” Chari says. “I distinctly remember, ‘Now we can do all kinds of cool things in there.’ We dissected frogs and other activities that we now have this science lab for and that really sparked my interest.”

Chari’s father came to the U.S. from India to get his master’s degree and spent his entire career at John Deere in Waterloo.

“My father came to the country with the goal of getting an education and realizing the importance of that and that directly translated to how I was brought up,” Chari says. “There was a focus throughout my childhood on education and that being the thing you really needed to do well to succeed.”

He’ll report for duty at NASA in August and will face two years of rigorous astronaut training, but says he’s excited at the prospects of rocketing into orbit and perhaps — going well beyond.

“We’ll do International Space Station systems training, we’ll do robotics training, spacewalk training, and then Russian training,” Chari says. “Those are the major subsets that we’ll work on over the next two years. Once you’re done with that, then you’re in the mission assignment cue and I’m excited to see what the possibilities are. I’ll be happy to do whatever they need me to do.”

It’s been five years since NASA’s last new astronaut class, a move that brought eight astronauts into the fold out of more than 6,100 applicants.

This is a particularly exhilarating time to be joining the space program, he says, with so many new possibilities on the horizon as NASA looks past the space station and toward missions that may lead to the Moon and to Mars. He’s piloted all sort of aircraft and has helped in developing America’s newest fighter, the F-35. With the space shuttle fleet long since retired, the prospects of being the first to pilot a completely new spacecraft into orbit are a thrill for Chari: “I wouldn’t say daunted so much as excited.”

Hear Matt Kelley’s full interview with Raja Chari below: