Raja Chari is the first rookie astronaut in 48 years to command a NASA mission

Raja Chari, a veteran U.S. Air Force test pilot and combat veteran awaiting launch on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, is the first rookie astronaut to command a NASA space mission since the final crew blasted off to the Skylab space station in 1973.

The 44-year-old Air Force colonel leads a four-person crew heading to the International Space Station for a nearly six-month expedition. Aboard the station, Chari and his crewmates will perform scientific experiments and maintain the orbiting research lab alongside another NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts who launched on Russian Soyuz spaceships.

Chari’s mission is the third operational crew rotation flight to the space station using a SpaceX capsule. The mission, designed Crew-3, will debut a brand new Dragon spacecraft the astronauts named  “Endurance.”

Liftoff from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is set for 9:03 p.m. EST Wednesday (0203 GMT Thursday), kicking off a 22-hour pursuit of the space station.

Tom Marshburn, pilot of the Crew-3 mission, is the only spaceflight veteran on the Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft. He says Chari’s resume is “very impressive.”

“He, in my mind, really does demonstrate all the qualities that you’d want in a commander,” Marshburn said. “His technical knowledge of that Dragon is beyond comparison for an astronaut on the outside coming in, and soaking up as much as they can.”

Chari was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where he met his wife, an attorney. They have three children.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in astronautical engineering from the Air Force Academy, Chari attended flight school and flew combat missions in the F-15E Strike Eagle during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He received a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.

Chari graduated U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland, and became commander of the 461st Flight Test Squadron and director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

According to NASA, he has logged more than 2,500 hours of flying time in F-35, F-15, F-16, and F-18 fighter jets.

NASA selected Chari as part of the 2017 astronaut class. Chari and classmate Kayla Barron, a mission specialist on the Crew-3 flight, will be the first members of the 2017 class to fly in space.

European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer, another first-time space flier, rounds out the four-person crew.

The last time a rookie astronaut commanded a NASA spaceflight was the Skylab 4 mission. Gerald Carr, who had not flown in space before, led a three-man crew on an 84-day flight on the Skylab space station.

NASA’s second space shuttle mission in 1981 was commanded by Joe Engle, who took off on his first flight into Earth orbit. But Engle, a veteran test pilot, previously raised an altitude over 50 miles (80 kilometers) in 1965 on three flights of the X-15 rocket plane, a joint project between NASA and the Air Force.

The 50-mile threshold is the boundary of space as recognized by the U.S. government.

Chari said the training program developed by NASA and SpaceX prepared him for the flight. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is also designed to fly in a fully automated mode, requiring little or no input from the crew members.

“It’s not so much the Dragon vehicle, I think it’s more a testament to the training we get,” Chari said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “NASA has done a great job over the years of taking feedback on the training process, and I think the space station has given us now 20 years of experience knowing what training we need, and what training we don’t need.”

First-time space fliers have flown together on the space station without any problems.

“When they kind of realized that many people were going to be up there that had no spaceflight experience, there was some consternation initially,” Chari said. “And then, once it happened and everything went flawlessly, they did all-rookie spacewalks multiple times, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, this is kind of a non-event.'”

Commander Raja Chari in his custom-fitted SpaceX flight suit. Credit: SpaceX

Chari said Marshburn’s presence on the crew has been “hugely beneficial.” Marshburn, who launched previously on a space shuttle and a Soyuz mission, has acted as a teacher for the three rookie astronauts, Chari said.

“He’s seen life in a small capsule,” Chari said. “He’s seen life on a larger machine in the shuttle. He’s seen life for a long duration on the ISS, so he’s got that wide breadth of experience to help inform our training as we’ve gone through.”

Chari and Marshburn are trained to take over manual control of the Dragon spacecraft using touchscreen displays in the cockpit. But something would have to go wrong for the astronauts to manually fly the capsule.

“The reality is the commander role is not so much a technical role,” Chari said. “It’s more of a coach role … The coach of an NBA team is not actually teaching a player how to shoot the ball. They’re more trying to figure out how to make the team work best in different situations.

“It’s very similar here. A fire response crew coordination effort is different than a depressurization response crew coordination effort. So knowing what resources, people-wise, to put on different problems or different situations is really my job.”

“He knows us very well,” Marshburn said of Chari. “As he’s stated before, he sees himself as a coach, not as a dictator. He does act that way. He takes decisions rom the crew, he disseminates and delegates responsibilities, and he’s just a good person. We’re friends. I really have learned a lot from him. I’ve been to space before but I’m learning from him and my crewmates quite a bit.”

Chari and his crewmates chose the name Endurance for their spacecraft to honor the SpaceX and NASA teams that built the spacecraft and trained the astronauts who will fly it. Those workers endured through a pandemic.

The name also honors the ship used by Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

The Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft is the third human-rated capsule in SpaceX’s fleet, joining sister ships Endeavour and Resilience. A fourth Crew Dragon is being manufactured for a mission next year.

“It’s not a carbon copy,” Chari said of the Endurance spacecraft. “Although the outer mold line is the same, there are upgraded batteries. The solar cells are a little different. There are definitely improvements.”

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.