Iowa astronaut Raja Chari embarks on 6-month mission at International Space Station

Philip Joens
Des Moines Register

Raja Chari once dressed as an astronaut for a school project when he was growing up in Cedar Falls. The spacesuit he's now wearing is no costume.

Chari earned his astronaut wings when Crew-3, under his command, launched just after 8 p.m. Wednesday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Crew Dragon capsule carrying Chari and three others began flying on its own 12 minutes after launch, according to USA TODAY, and was expected to dock at the space station late Thursday afternoon.

"It was a great ride," Chari said from the spacecraft, minutes after liftoff. "Better than we imagined."

Rookie commander

Chari, 44, who was born in Milwaukee, grew up in Cedar Falls and graduated from Columbus Catholic High School in Waterloo. NASA named the Air Force colonel an astronaut in 2017. He and 11 others were selected from a record pool of 18,353 applicants, more than double the previous high of 8,000.

“We do things because they are hard, and then we crush it,” he said at the time.

Chari is the first space rookie in decades to lead a mission to orbit for NASA, according to the Associated Press, and the 10th Iowan in space

"Being in the commander role, it's really more like being a coach than a dictator," Chari said before the original launch date of Oct. 31. "I'm super happy to have the chance to go to space."

More:A look at the Iowans who have made it to space

The launch was scheduled for Oct. 31, but was delayed due to high winds and rough seas in the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles away. NASA was concerned that if the crew was forced to abort on launch, the rough seas could pose dangers for the capsule.

Then, on Nov. 3, another launch attempt was scrubbed because of "a minor medical issue involving one of its crew members." The issue was not related to COVID-19, according to NASA's website.

In total, Chari's crew that includes European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer, of Germany; and NASA astronauts Tom Marshburn, of North Carolina; and Kayla Barron, of Idaho, will spend about six months on science experiments and station maintenance.

Aiming for a return to the moon

Last year, Chari and 17 other NASA astronauts were chosen to train for moon landings during NASA's Artemis program.

The space agency hopes that humans will return to the moon by the end of 2025. Then-Vice President Mike Pence said the Artemis group likely includes the next person — and first woman — to walk on the moon.

The space agency plans to launch its 322-foot high Space Launch System for the first time in February, according to tech news website The Verge. NASA chose SpaceX in April to design and build the next lunar lander. NASA also wants to build a space station known as Lunar Gateway to make getting to the moon easier.

"To get to the moon and to stay there — and to go to Mars — you need more reliable equipment and higher recovery rates than we have now," Chari said. "Right now, we recover between 70% and 90% of the water that's wasted on the space station that comes out of us. We need to get that closer to 98%."

No Iowan has ever walked on the moon, but the first NASA astronaut with Iowa ties was on the first Apollo flight.

Walter Cunningham was born in Creston but grew up in Los Angeles. Cunningham flew on Apollo 7 in October 1968, the first flight of the Apollo Command and Service Modules. All three astronauts on Apollo 7 had severe head colds and the flight became known as the first mutiny in space when astronauts ignored a series of ground orders from controllers. Cunningham never flew in space again.

More:

Other Iowans who made it to space

Laurel Clark was born in Ames, but grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, and considered that her hometown. Clark and six other astronauts died aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia when it broke up while reentering the atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003.

Foam from the shuttle's external fuel tank hit and punctured a hole in the leading edge of Columbia's left wing on launch. During reentry, the hole allowed super-hot gasses to penetrate the orbiter's heat shield. The 15-day science mission had been successful up to that point.

Laurel Clark was born in Ames, but grew up in Wisconsin. Clark was on her first space flight on STS-107 when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003.

Peggy Whitson, originally of Beaconsfield, graduated from Mount Ayr High School. She flew on three International Space Station expeditions and two space shuttle missions between 2002 and 2017. Whitson, who retired from NASA in 2018, spent 665 days in space — more time than any other American or woman worldwide.

Peggy Whitson was the first woman to command the International Space Station.

James Kelly was born and raised in Burlington. Kelly piloted the Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-102 in 2001 and STS-114 in 2005, the first flight after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. 

Burlington native James Kelly flew on two space shuttle missions. He is on the flight deck of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-102 in March 2001.

George "Pinky" Nelson was born in Charles City but raised in Minnesota. Nelson flew on the space shuttles Challenger, Columbia and Discovery in 1984, 1986 and 1988, respectively.

George "Pinky" Nelson was born in Charles City and flew on three space shuttle flights in 1984, 1986 and 1988. He is on the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Challenger on STS-41-C in this photo in April 1984.

David Hilmers was born in Clinton but raised in DeWitt. Hilmers flew on the first flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1985. He also made three other space flights in the 1980s and 1990s.

David Hilmers grew up in DeWitt. Hilmers holds a camera out a window on STS-36 on the Space Shuttle Atlantis in March 1990.

Loren Shriver was born in Jefferson and graduated from Paton High School. Shriver flew on three missions including the 1990 trip that took the Hubble Telescope to space.

Jefferson native Loren Shriver on the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-46 in July 1992. Shriver was the commander of the weeklong mission.

Clayton Anderson was born in Omaha and attended Iowa State. Clayton spent five months on the International Space Station in 2007. He was also on a space station resupply mission in 2010.

Iowa State graduate Clayton Anderson is attached to an adjustable portable foot restraint on the International Space Station on Aug. 15, 2007.

Dale Gardner was raised in Clinton. Gardner flew in 1983, on just the eighth space shuttle flight and just the third of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Gardner also flew in 1984 on a Space Shuttle Discovery mission which launched two communications satellites.

Dale Gardner holds a "for sale" sign on a spacewalk on STS-51-A in November 1984 after retrieving two communications satellites which were brought back to earth.

Meet the astronauts of Crew-3:

Raja Chari, commander: An Air Force colonel, the 44-year-old from Cedar Falls, Iowa, merged his engineering experience and fighter jet training into the pre-NASA role of test pilot. He was selected to become part of NASA's 2017 astronaut class. 

Despite this being his first mission, NASA made him commander of Crew-3 – a rare honor bestowed to spaceflight rookies. Chari is counted as the 599th person in space.

Kayla Barron, mission specialist: The 34-year-old from Richland, Washington, is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and later earned her master's degree in nuclear engineering. In the Navy, she serves as a lieutenant commander and was part of the first class of female submariners. Barron was selected by NASA as an astronaut in 2017 and this is her first spaceflight.

NASA maintains a record of all people launched to space and assigns numbers based on an astronaut's role such as pilot or, in Barron's case, mission specialist. The agency designated her the 601st person to reach space.

Thomas Marshburn, pilot: A former emergency room physician, 61-year-old Marshburn is serving on Crew-3 as the pilot. He was selected as a space shuttle astronaut in 2004 and went on to fly both the shuttle and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The only veteran on the crew, Marshburn's six-month stay will add to his already impressive 161 days spent in space.

He is officially the 598th person to reach space.

Matthias Maurer, mission specialist: A materials science engineer from Sankt Wendel, Germany, the 51-year-old marked his first flight to space with Crew-3's launch. He holds at least 10 patents and is one of the few astronauts trained to operate both American and Russian spacesuits. He was selected to join the European Space Agency as an astronaut in 2010.

Maurer received the honor of becoming the 600th person in space.

— Florida Today's Emre Kelly contributed to this article.

Philip Joens covers breaking news for The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-443-3347 at pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.