Entrepreneur and pilot, Gopichand Thotakura is aiming for a place in Indian space history

Successful trip could make Thotakura the first Indian in space since Rakesh Sharma

April 14, 2024 12:57 pm | Updated 07:11 pm IST - New Delhi

Gopi Thotakura, an entrepreneur and a pilot, is set to become the first Indian to venture into space as a tourist. Photo: X/@blueorigin via PTI

Gopi Thotakura, an entrepreneur and a pilot, is set to become the first Indian to venture into space as a tourist. Photo: X/@blueorigin via PTI

Earlier this month, Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin announced six crew members who would be part of a forthcoming commercial flight to space. Of interest to India is one participant, Gopichand Thotakura, an Indian businessman and pilot, who is based in the United States.

While an actual launch date has not been specified, a successful trip to space could make Mr. Thotakura the first Indian in space since Rakesh Sharma, who in April 1984 became — and remains — the only Indian to have the honour, when he went aboard the Russian Soyuz T-11 spacecraft.

In a media statement, Mr. Thotakura describes himself as the “first civilian Indian astronaut”. In response to questions from The Hindu, he reasoned that he would be an astronaut because anyone who crosses the Karman Line — the boundary that separates Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, and is at about 80 km above sea level — is considered one.

Given that the New Shepard rocket (NS-25), the Blue Origin vehicle, climbs to a 100 km from the Earth’s surface, stays in space long enough for the crew aboard to experience weightlessness and allows one to observe the Earth’s curvature, it ticks all the boxes for a space trip. Rakesh Sharma, who spent a week in the Russian space station, fits the classical definition of an astronaut, however it is unclear if Mr. Thotakura would be described as one.

Until 2021, these distinctions did not matter because all human spaceflight until then involved military personnel and astronauts who were trained as such and part of missions that involved either living in space or being part of test flights.

The United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which issues commercial space licences and verifies launch or re-entry vehicles that carry humans, has since 2021 stopped designating spacefarers as “astronauts”.

In 2004, the FAA had launched a “commercial astronaut wings” programme that awarded a $10 million prize to launch a reusable spacecraft that could carry people to the Karman boundary, and return and repeat a launch in two weeks. However those part of NASA’s training programme, irrespective of whether they actually go into space, are designated as astronauts though they are given different categories of astronauts depending on the activities executed.

To be eligible for these astronaut wings — specially designed insignia — one had to be part of the designated “flight crew”, or somebody who actually contributed to the launch, re-entry, or other operations of a manned space vehicle. Ahead of India’s own preparations for the Gaganyaan mission, where two or three Air Force pilots are expected to undertake a three-day mission in low-Earth orbit reportedly in 2025, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conferred astronaut wings on the four selected pilots. Though not confirmed, there are reports that one of the pilots may make a commercial trip to the International Space Station as part of a U.S.-India agreement later this year.

In 2021, the FAA said that the creation of commercial space companies, meant the 2004 programme objectives were met. Beginning 2021, anyone who went at least 50 miles (80 km) above the Earth’s surface in a FAA-approved launch — irrespective of nationality — would merit a mention on the agency’s website as space travellers but would no longer get these commercial wings. Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, the owners of the two commercial companies and spacefarers, received wings as their flights were in 2021. By these criteria then, Mr. Thotakura could make it to the website but not merit commercial wings. Blue Origin confers its own custom-made wings to successful participants.

The term astronaut reflects a U.S.-centric view of space-faring. Russian astronauts are called ‘cosmonauts’, and Chinese ones ‘taikonauts’, and prospective Indians, are colloquially ‘vyomanauts’ or ‘gaganauts’, suggesting that countries are free to define space travellers in their own terms. S. Somnath, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) told The Hindu that were Mr. Thotukura’s flight to be successful and prior to the Gaganyaan missions he would be the “...second Indian in space and technically, an astronaut.”

Mr. Thotakura, born in Vijaywada and schooled in Visakhapatnam, studied aeronautical engineering and trained to be a pilot in the United States. “I’ve always aspired to go to space. When I came to the U.S. in 2010, this meant either going via NASA or being a U.S. citizen and these were barriers for me. Blue Origin opened up opportunities,” he said.

Blue Origin doesn’t disclose the cost of space travel but a Virgin Galactic ticket in 2021 cost $450,000. Blue Origin has taken celebrities for free and a seat on its 2021 flight was reportedly auctioned for $28 million. Yet another has coughed up $1 million and some of those selected are sponsored.

Mr. Thotakura, who is the co-founder of Preserve Life Corp, an Atlanta-based health and wellness company didn’t disclose how he bagged a seat on NS-25. “There was no real selection process or criteria. I was hell bent on getting aboard a manned mission. It is a desire to carry Indian blood (ethnicity) to space,” he added.

In his mission, he would be carrying postcards and “different kinds of payloads” that would later serve as memorabilia.

“I want to show that you have to have a dream and it is not really important if you are a scientist, engineer or a pilot to be able to go to space,” he added. “India launched Chandrayaan and Mars missions at a fraction of the costs it would take internationally. With just a little bit more funding, India could easily be a pioneer in commercial space travel.”

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