Indians in space: 12 of 60 IAF test pilots in shortlist, many out due to dental defects

Johnson T A
An IAF test pilot undergoes a medical test as part of the cosmonaut-selection process. (Indian Air Force)

Bad teeth are not good for astronauts. This is one of the key lessons that experts from IAF’s Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM) learnt over the last three months during the recruitment of 12 air force test pilots as Gatcans or Gaganaut candidates for Gaganyaan, India’s first human space mission.

The pilots, who were selected from a field of 60 with the help of Russian experts, have undergone generic training as astronauts at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia’s Star City over the last 45 days — seven have completed the stint so far.

The group is set to return to India for strenuous training and tests, including mission-specific training, that will lead to the final selection of three astronauts for the proposed launch by 2022.

One of the primary physical and medical conditions that ruled out a majority of candidates during the first level of screening in July and August was dental problems, IAM experts said this week at the annual conference of the Indian Society of Aerospace Medicine fraternity.

The IAM is finding its way back to the rigour of selecting candidates for space missions after over three decades, following the selection of cosmonauts Rakesh Sharma and Ravish Malhotra in 1982 for the 1984 Russian Soyuz T-11 mission.

The IAM team initially shortlisted a group of 16 from 24 test pilots sent by the IAF for selection, ignoring minor physical conditions. But, a Russian team of experts, including a cosmonaut with aerospace medicine expertise and 560 days in space under his belt, cracked down on candidates with even dental problems, experts said.

“We prepared 16 dossiers and presented them to a visiting Russian team headed by an aviation specialist...he was the topmost expert in the Russian team. We sat with them and assessed what we had done and unfortunately, only seven of the 16 could clear their assessment. The possible reason is that we came out with a lot of incidental findings which we thought were not very important as far as flying was concerned,’’ said Group Captain M S Nataraj, the chief selection officer for the astronauts at IAM.

“Most of the people who were rejected by the Russians had dental problems which could have created problems in the space flight,’’ he said.

“They were extremely particular about the teeth. Things we thought were okay, they did not think were okay. It may be because they had to abort a mission due to a toothache. When you sit with a flight surgeon who has a PhD in aerospace medicine and a cosmonaut with 562 days under his belt, he knows better,’’ the commandant of IAM, Air Commodore Anupam Agarwal, said.

According to space agencies like Europe’s ESA, “astronauts need good teeth because acceleration forces and vibrations during a space flight can be very strong” and “ill-fitting fillings could become loose or fall out, and the atmospheric pressure change may be painful when cavities are present”.

At least one Russian cosmonaut — Yuri Romanenko, commander of the Salyut 6 mission in 1978 — is reported to have endured two weeks of unbearable toothache during a mission.

Under a cooperation agreement signed in 2018, Russia is helping India with its first human space mission — specifically, selection and training, and supply of technical equipment like support systems for the Gaganyaan crew module.

Apart from dental problems, other aspects like minor hearing and visual shortcomings were also used to sort the candidates.

With the Russians not clearing nine of the initial 16, a fresh batch of 36 test pilots was picked by the IAF to fill the five remaining slots and complete the dozen that will undergo advanced training over two years.

Wiser from assessing factors the Russians had flagged, IAM experts picked 15 from the second batch of 36 and sent their records to the Russians. This time, as many as 12 were cleared from whom IAM chose five.

While all the 60 test pilots who were a part of the selection process were at the top of the fitness grade in the IAF, they were subjected to further rigorous physical tests by the IAM.

The physical assessment involved eight activities of which six were athletics, including a 60m sprint and a 5-km run, swimming 25m in 20 seconds and a continuous 200m swim.

The candidates also underwent rigorous psychological and psychiatric testing. “What we did in 1982 served as a very good template to start. A document we put together in 2012 was also suitably modified. We got a document from ISRO as well,’’ IAM’s Group Captain Vipin Sharma said.

There are four levels in selection for the Gaganyaan mission, he said.

“The first level is the candidate’s physical prowess and medical history; level 2 involves medical tests and psychological tests; level 3 involves complex aero medical stresses and grading of the physiological responses; and, level four is the final selection of the individual from the cohort of people who are fit to be astronauts,’’ Sharma said.

“This activity started in the institute in July... level one and a part of level 2 are over. We have the next part starting after the individuals return,’’ he said.

“The human space programme has taken up every waking moment and a lot of sleep moments as well. We are involved in a large number of things which involves a human going into space. This has been divided into a 16-part vertical. We are in the process of finishing the first part of the task which was selection of astronauts. Our understanding is that the remaining 15 parts are going to be tougher,’’ the IAM commandant, Agarwal, said.

“The selected astronauts are going to come back after completion of their generic astronaut training in Russia and the next step is difficult, which is mission-specific training. There are many more major tasks like consultancy for crew module design, onboard life support system and crew health monitoring system in space flight,” the director general of medical services for IAF, Air Marshal M S Butola, said.

“Never forget that some of the most advanced countries have attempted human space programmes and they faced challenges and had to abandon it because they could not succeed. We have to succeed and succeed in our first attempt as we are the only country attempting to send a human to space in the first live launch,’’ he said.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the plan for India’s first manned space mission on Independence Day, multiple agencies have been working to prepare for the 2022 or even 2021 mission.

For instance, ISRO has to ensure that its GSLV Mk III rocket, which is designated to launch Gaganyaan, is safe for human space flight. ISRO will carry out two unmanned test flights with the crew module to rehearse the mission before the actual launch.

In 1982, IAM selected four from 40 prospective cosmonauts after which Air Commodore Ravish Malhotra and Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma were sent for advanced training with the Russians. IAF test pilots are considered the best candidates to be astronauts due to their ability to stay calm, take rational decisions amid extreme conditions, and familiarity with air and space systems.