‘Desire to Explore More…’: Why This Fighter Pilot from Lucknow Applied to Be Astronaut in Gaganyaan Mission

‘Dig deeper, always have the hunger to know more about the world and never fear asking a question’ – this is the success mantra of Wing Commander Shubhanshu Shukla, who is one out of the four astronauts shortlisted for India’s first human space flight mission Gaganyaan.

Shubhanshu, who is from Lucknow, is an alumnus of City Montessori School in Aliganj and was commissioned as a fighter pilot in 2006. He has played that role for more than 16 years with an impressive over 2,000 flying hours.

He said being chosen for the mission is a feeling that cannot be described in words. “I would rather consider myself fortunate enough to be part of Gaganyaan, which also comes with an immense sense of responsibility. I am excited about the mission,” he told News18.

Shubhanshu, who is better described as a “super-supportive” human being by his family members, made up his mind to join the National Defence Academy (NDA) when he was 14. Those close to him have often heard him say – ‘Agar Kargil ki ladai na hui hoti to shayad Shukla ji ka ladka defence join na karta‘ (if the Kargil war had not happened, Shukla ji’s son would not have chosen defence as a career).

It was only after the Kargil war that Shubhanshu made up his mind to join the NDA. “When he was in Class XII, he borrowed an NDA form from one of his friends, who later changed his mind, and applied for the NDA without informing us. My brother is the most disciplined man I have ever seen and we strongly believe that it’s the hard work and discipline that has paid off,” said Suchi Shukla, his elder sister, who is a school teacher by profession.

Shubhanshu was commissioned into the Indian Air Force on June 17, 2006, and said his life has been a “rollercoaster ride” since. Over the course of time, he excelled in his field and turned out to be a fighter combat leader and test pilot with at least 2,000 flying hours. He has flown fighter aircrafts like Su-30MKI, MIG-21, MIG-29, Jaguar, Hawk among others.

But that was not all.

Shubhanshu said 2018 was a turning point in his career, when the Gaganyaan mission was announced. And going by his curiosity and desire to explore more, he applied for the mission without giving it a second thought.

“In 2018, the mission was announced. It was out of my desire to explore more in life that made me apply. It took almost a year for the selection process in which around 70 fighter pilots had applied,” he said.

He further said it was only after he and the others were sent to Russia in 2020 for the training, that he realised that he had made it and will be a part of the prestigious mission.

“It was hard to believe. But when I got the call informing me that we have to go to Russia for training, I thanked the Almighty and broke the news to my family. Until then, the family was not aware that I am going to be a part of the space mission,” he said, adding that he is not allowed to talk much about the mission.

The fighter pilot said it was after almost a four-year gruelling training programme that the group was allowed to return to India, where they continued to train. About the mission, he said he is quite confident and being a test pilot helped him a lot.

“It is familiar territory for us, being a test pilot. The navigation and training process was not difficult,” he added. Apart from being excited, he is also slightly anxious but he believes that this helps one introspect.

On February 27, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Shubhanshu’s name along with the names of three other astronauts chosen for Gaganyaan, at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram. The four will fly to low-earth orbit as part of ISRO’s first crewed space mission.

Fondly called Gunjan, Shubhanshu is the youngest of three siblings. He is the first from his family to join the armed forces and is father to a four-year-old son. His family members said it is a big day for them.

“The PM announcing his name for the mission is a big achievement. It’s a proud moment for all of us,” said his father Shambhu Dayal Shukla, who retired from the secretariat.

Shambhu Dayal said it was during his son’s last visit to Lucknow in December last year, that he informed them about the space mission and of his dream of becoming an astronaut. Until then, however, he said they never knew that it will be a reality so soon.

Suchi said she is finding it hard to believe that, in the next few months, her brother will be in space. “The mere thought of him being in space is giving me goosebumps,” she said.

Not only family members, but neighbours from the Triveninagar locality where he lives are also excited about Shubhanshu’s achievement and called him a “national hero”.

“It’s a big achievement for all of us. Shubhanshu is an inspiration to many. We pray for his success,” a local resident said.

Another astronaut with UP connection

Group Captain Angad Pratap, also an alumnus of the NDA, was born in Prayagraj. He was commissioned on December 18, 2004, in the fighter stream of the air force where he is a flying instructor and a test pilot with approximately 2,000 flying hours. He has flown many advanced fighter aircrafts, including Su-30 MKI, MIG-21, Jaguar, Hawk among others.

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