Indian-origin surgeon in Nasa class of 2021 trainee astronauts Anil Menon, 45, lieutenant colonel, US Air Force, speaks at the NASA’s 2021 Astronaut Candidate announcement event on December 6, 2021 at Ellington Field in Houston (Photo by THOMAS SHEA/AFP via Getty Images)
NASA on Monday (6) announced its 10 latest trainee astronauts, who include an Indian-origin physician.
Anil Menon, 45, is a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force who was previously SpaceX’s first flight surgeon before an earlier stint at NASA.
A physician born to parents from India and Ukraine, he was a first responder during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and the 2011 Reno Air Show accident.
Menon, who at 45 is the oldest of the astronaut class of 2021, having previously fulfilled the same role for NASA, overseeing the health of astronauts on missions.
It was Menon, who got selected after his fifth time applying, who pulled Frenchman Thomas Pesquet out from his Dragon capsule when it splashed down in November after the crew had spent six months in space.
“It will be incredible to be able to physically experience it myself,” he said.
In addition to contributing to medical research, “I think that medical knowledge is going to keep people healthy and safe,” he said.
The 2021 class was whittled down from a field of more than 12,000 applicants and will now report for duty in January at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, where they will undergo two years of training.
“We’re going back to the moon, and we’re continuing on to Mars – and so today we welcome 10 new explorers,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said at an event to welcome the recruits.
“Alone, each candidate has ‘the right stuff,’ but together they represent the creed of our country: E pluribus unum – out of many, one,” he added.
The 10 candidates, who range in age from 32 to 45, will learn how to operate and maintain the International Space Station, train for spacewalks, develop robotics skills, safely operate a T-38 training jet, and learn Russian to communicate with their counterparts.
After they graduate, they could be assigned to missions aboard the ISS or deeper into space, including NASA’s planned return to the Moon later this decade under the Artemis mission, which will include the first woman and person of colour to set foot on lunar soil.
The field was open to US citizens who hold a master’s degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field – the first time such a requirement was added – and passed an online test. The master’s degree requirement could also be met by a medical degree or completion of a test pilot programme.
Menon previously served NASA as the crew flight surgeon for various expeditions taking astronauts to the International Space Station. He is a practising emergency medicine physician with fellowship training in wilderness and aerospace medicine.
In the Air Force, Menon supported the 45th Space Wing as a flight surgeon and the 173rd Fighter Wing, where he logged over 100 sorties in the F-15 fighter jet and transported over 100 patients as part of the critical care air transport team.
Others include fighter pilot Nichole Ayers who has more than 200 combat hours and is one of a few women currently flying the F-22 jet.
Jessica Wittner, 38, a lieutenant commander in the US Navy who is a test pilot and aerospace engineer, said “I first became interested in becoming an astronaut at a very, very early age.”
Christopher Williams, 38, is an assistant professor of medical physics at Harvard University.
“I was splitting my time between helping to research better ways we can target radiation therapy for cancer, and then actually working as part of a multidisciplinary team to treat patients,” said Williams, who holds a doctorate in astrophysics from MIT and has served as a volunteer emergency medical technician and firefighter.