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What does it take to be a citizen-science astronaut?

Akshat Mohite, an Indian citizen scientist, speaks to Lounge about the physical challenges of training like an astronaut

Twenty-year-old Akshat Mohite from Maharashtra is an astronaut in training.
Twenty-year-old Akshat Mohite from Maharashtra is an astronaut in training.

Earlier this month, the US space agency Nasa began accepting applications for four posts of volunteers. The unusual job profile involves living in a simulated Mars environment on Earth for a year—in Mars Dune Alpha, a 1,700 sq. ft Martian habitat, created using a 3D printer, and located inside a building at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The idea is to prepare for a Mars mission. These volunteers will work in a simulated Martian exploration mission: experiencing everything from spacewalks, limited communication with home, ready-to-eat space food and resources to equipment failures. The space agency is planning three such experiments, with the first one starting in fall next year, according to an Associated Press report.

Also read: How is life on the International Space Station? Ask an astronaut

If there is anyone who knows what it’s going to be like, it’s 20-year-old Akshat Mohite from Maharashtra. An astronaut in training, Mohite is one of the few people in the world to have participated in a citizen-science astronautics training programme with Project PoSSUM, or Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere.

The programme is associated with the US-based International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS) that specialises in operational science, flight test engineering and bioastronautics. Kellie Gerardi, the American science communicator who is set to travel to space through Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, is one of the popular names associated with Project PoSSUM.

Next year, Mohite hopes to take forward his training with PoSSUM and IIAS by undertaking the advanced egress and post-landing space suit evaluation course, also known as BIO 104.

Project PoSSUM, which is also supported by Nasa through its flight opportunities programme, offers individuals a unique chance to train like a citizen-science astronaut. The month-long programme Mohite took part in in 2019 is called Astronautics, or AST 101—he “did everything from G-force training in an Extra 300 aircraft to understanding the effects of low oxygen on our body at certain altitudes”, Mohite says on the phone.

To participate, Mohite explains, an individual needs medical clearance and certifications, including one from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation in India and the Federal Aviation Administration in the US. Mohite also has the mandatory scuba-diving certification from PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors).

The PoSSUM Scientist Astronaut programme that Mohite completed is focused on suborbital noctilucent cloud science missions. Noctilucent clouds are the highest in Earth’s atmosphere and are of special interest to researchers because they are sensitive to both global climate change and to solar or terrestrial influences. They were first recorded in 1885. In the years since, both satellite and ground-based observations have indicated that these clouds have become more frequent, and brighter.

The PoSSUM Scientist Astronaut programme that Mohite completed is focused on suborbital noctilucent cloud science missions
The PoSSUM Scientist Astronaut programme that Mohite completed is focused on suborbital noctilucent cloud science missions (Courtesy: Project PoSSUM)

Scientists now know that these clouds are sensitive indicators of what is going on in the atmosphere at higher altitudes. “These clouds in the mesosphere are really opaque,” says Mohite, who calls this the “scientific” part of his training. “Our mission is totally related to noctilucent cloud tomography, studying their composition and how they are formed. All this information about these clouds plays a major role during the re-entry of a space vehicle,” he adds.

Astronautics training is physically tough. The hypoxia awareness and mitigation training, for example, sees the candidates go into a vacuum chamber with low levels of oxygen. Three individuals participate in this test at a time; they must be seated and follow instructions to fly a computerised aircraft simulation. “The idea behind this test is to see if you are receptive and following instructions correctly even with a lack of oxygen,” Mohite explains. “You have to work as a team here. It does get tough towards the end when the pressure is stabilised—your ears start hurting.”

The other physically taxing activity involves “space suit donning and doffing” training, where an individual gets into a pressurised intra-vehicular spacesuit. “Once it’s pressurised, you practise physical movements and operate a spacecraft simulator. It’s almost like locomotor training,” explains Mohite, who travelled to Melbourne and Daytona, in Florida, during training.

It was in school that Mohite decided he wanted to be a scientist. He enjoyed chemistry and physics and developed an interest in space exploration, spurred by his father Avinash. In 2018, he submitted a research paper to the Nasa Ames Centre on space settlements.

Today, he is studying mechanical engineering at the AP Shah Institute of Technology in Thane, Maharashtra, and is the chief technology officer for Spaceonova, a Mumbai-based space educational startup founded in 2020. Planning real-life analogue missions, Mohite is currently working with citizen-science astronauts around the world, as well as the Colorado-based company Space Nation, to plan a mission in 2022, with Ireland or the Utah desert in the US as possible locations. He is unwilling to say much about the project as of now.

As Nasa plans for Mars, Mohite too is dreaming big. Hoping to work with the Indian Space Research Organisation one day soon, he says: “I want to become the first Indian to be launched in space from Indian soil. I am working towards that.”

Also read: From Richard Branson to Jeff Bezos, space tourism takes flight

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