After two years of training, an Iowan will graduate today with NASA’s first class of astronauts in the Artemis program, which aims to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars.
Forty-one-year-old Air Force Colonel Raja Chari grew up in Cedar Falls. In a 2017 interview with Radio Iowa, Chari told how he was picked from among 18-thousand applicants to be in the first class of 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 has degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from the Air Force Academy and MIT, and he flew combat missions over Iraq. 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.”
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 to the Moon and beyond. 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.”
Chari will graduate today at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.