Explained: Why No Woman Among 4 Pilots Chosen For Gaganyaan Mission

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 Why No Woman Among 4 Pilots Chosen For Gaganyaan Mission

PM Modi today gave 'astronaut wings' to the four pilots chosen for the space mission

New Delhi:

Shortly after he revealed and congratulated the four Air Force pilots identified for India's human space flight mission Gaganyaan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi today underlined the immense contribution of women scientists in the country's space missions and how neither Chandrayaan nor Gaganyaan would have been possible without them.

However, as the names of Group Captains Prasanth Balakrishnan Nair, Ajit Krishnan, Angad Pratap and Wing Commander Shubhanshu Shukla were announced, many wondered why no woman pilot was chosen for the space flight. Of the four Indians and persons of Indian origin to go to space, two were women. The late Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams are national icons and have inspired generations. Why then was no woman chosen for India's first human space flight mission?

The answer, NDTV learnt, is in the method of choosing astronaut-designates for space flight. The world over, astronaut-designates for maiden missions are picked from a pool of test pilots. At the time of selection, India did not have a woman test pilot. Test pilots are highly skilled aviators chosen for their special skills and have been known to remain calm even during an emergency, they are the creme-de-la-creme of air warriors.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman S Somanath has told NDTV that he would be happy to send women astronauts on space flights in times to come. Mr Somanath told NDTV, "Very soon India will need mission specialists and women can well be accommodated in that role as astronauts, but the first few missions of crewed Gaganyaan will obviously be ferrying the crew that has been selected and trained."

Dr Unnikrishnan Nair, director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre and a key player in India's human space programme, says, "Women can be accommodated in the future as ISRO is gender-agnostic and only talent matters."

But there can still be an opportunity for an Indian woman to fly into space since ahead of the Gaganyaan mission tentatively slated for 2025, if all tests succeed. Also, there is the upcoming NASA-ISRO human space mission to the International Space Station later this year and one of IAF's skilled female fighter pilots could well be seconded; they may not be test pilots, but they are air warriors nevertheless. But ISRO is more inclined to send one of the four male astronaut-designates because they have been trained.

The Gaganyaan mission is the most expensive scientific mission ever undertaken by India and is going to cost about Rs 10,000 crore. The mission is expected to help develop several game-changing technologies. If successful, India would become the fourth country in the world to send an astronaut into space on an indigenously-made rocket. The tall feat has only been achieved by the US, China and Soviet Russia so far. The last entrant in human space flight on its own capabilities was China, way back in 2003.

Prime Minister Modi, who is known to take a keen interest in space technology, has said India is expanding its space in the global order and this can be seen in its space programme too.

Addressing scientists at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, the Prime Minister said the four astronauts chosen for the mission are not just four names or four people. "They are four powers who will take the aspirations of 140 crore Indians to space. Forty years later, an Indian is going to space. But this time, the timing, the countdown and the rocket belong to us," he added. Earlier, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma (retired) went to the space in 1984 as part of a Soviet mission.

The Prime Minister said India's success in the space sector was not only sowing the seeds of scientific temperament in the young generation, but also helping it emerge as a dynamic global player in the 21st century by showcasing significant strides across sectors.