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Kalpana Chawla - Biography of a Shining Star

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Our tribute to a great Indian lady, Dr. Kalpana Chawla….

Kalpana Chawla's story is an absolutely inspiring one! It’s the story of an ordinary girl who dreamt big and reached for the stars…literally. As most people know, Kalpana Chawla was an astronaut and space shuttle mission specialist for STS-107 (Columbia). She was killed in a spacecraft accident when at the end of its mission, Columbia disintegrated after reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.

Born in Karnal, Haryana, India on July 1, 1961 to Banarasi Lal Chawla and Sanjyothi, Kalpana was the youngest of four siblings, after 2 sisters, Sunita and Dipa, and a brother, Sanjay. She completed her earlier schooling at Tagore Public School in Karnal. Chawla's mother has mentioned in an interview that her daughter was "different." "She used to cut her own hair, never wore ironed clothes, learned karate." One of her teachers remembered a project she had done on the environment, making "huge, colorful charts and models depicting the sky and stars." From her earliest childhood, she and her brother shared an interest in flying.  Her interest in flight was inspired by J. R. D. Tata, India's first pilot. To pursue her dream of flying airplanes and becoming an Aerospace Engineer, she earned her Bachelor of Engineering degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College at Chandigarh in 1982. She was at the top of her class and had been offered a job in her own college. But when she learned that she was accepted at the University of Texas for a Master's in Aeronautical Engineering, she moved to the United States in 1982. There she obtained M.S. in Aerospace Engineering in the year 1984. In 1988, she received her Doctorate from University of Colorado. The same year she married Jean Pierre Harrison whom she had met on the day she landed in America for the first time. Harrison was a freelance flying instructor, and introduced Chawla to scuba diving, hiking, and long flying expeditions. She kept her brother informed of her budding relationship, and it was he who helped persuade their parents to let his sister marry Harrison.

With her Ph.D. in hand, Chawla began working at the NASA Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay area. The simulation of complex air flows encountered around spacecraft was the focus of her research. Later on, Chawla took a position with Overset Methods, Inc. in Silicon Valley. She served as the Vice President and as a research scientist. Her work and its results were presented at conferences and published in various professional journals.

 

Chawla was chosen for the astronaut program in December 1994 and was selected for her first flight in 1996. She spoke the following words while traveling in the weightlessness of space, "You are just your intelligence". She had traveled 10.4 million km, as many as 252 times around the Earth. Her first space mission began on November 19, 1997 as part of the six-astronaut crew that flew the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87. Chawla was the first Indian-born woman and the second Indian person to fly in space, following cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma who flew in 1984 in a spacecraft. During STS-87, she was responsible for deploying the Spartan Satellite which malfunctioned, necessitating a spacewalk by Winston Scott and Takao Doi to capture the satellite. A five-month NASA investigation fully exonerated Chawla by identifying errors in software interfaces and the defined procedures of flight crew and ground control.

 In 2000, she was selected for her second flight as part of the crew of STS-107. This mission was repeatedly delayed due to scheduling conflicts and technical problems. On January 16, 2003, Chawla finally returned to space aboard Columbia on the ill-fated STS-107 mission. Chawla's responsibilities included the microgravity experiments, for which the crew conducted nearly 80 experiments studying earth and space science advanced technology development, and astronaut health and safety. On February 1, 2003, after completing their assigned duties, the crew of mission STS-107 was all set to return to Earth. Everything looked alright until US space shuttle Columbia gained entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. During its final descent, just 16 minutes prior to landing, the space shuttle exploded into pieces. The entire crew perished along with Kalpana Chawla. Since then, the tragic and untimely death of this extraordinary woman has remained in the memories of many.

Many awards and memorials have been instituted in the honor of Kalpana Chawla. The Outstanding Recent Alumni Award at the University of Colorado, given since 1983, was renamed for Kalpana Chawla. At least 30,000 schoolchildren and citizens joined hands to make a 36.4 km-long human chain to support the demand for a Kalpana Chawla medical college in the city of Karnal to demonstrate that they continue to revere Kalpana Chawla as an outstanding astronaut. Haryana Government accepted this long pending demand of the people of Karnal and the establishment of Kalpana Chawla Medical College is in progress. The Government of Haryana has also made a Planetarium after her name called Kalpana Chawla Planetarium in Jyotisar, Kurukshetra. Shortly after her last mission, India renamed its first weather satellite 'Kalpana-1' in her honor. Steve Morse from the band Deep Purple created a song called "Contact Lost" in memory of the Columbia tragedy. The song can be found in the album Bananas.

Kalpana Chawla lived as a role-model for many young women, particularly those in her hometown of Karnal where she periodically returned to encourage young girls to follow in her footsteps. And in the end, she died a hero. Her brother, Sanjay Chawla remarked, "To me, my sister is not dead. She is immortal. Isn't that what a star is? She is a permanent star in the sky. She will always be up there where she belongs”. 

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Kalpana Chawla - Biography of a Shining Star