Kalpana Chawla was an Indian-born American astronaut and mechanical engineer who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster on February 1, 2003. Kalpana Chawla was the first woman from India to go to space. She was given many awards and honors posthumously including the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Kalpana Chawla is no less than a ‘national hero’ in India.
When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system.” – Kalpana Chawla
Born in Karnal – a city notorious for its low sex ratio
Kalpana Chawla was born on March 17, 1962, in Karnal, Haryana, India. Reportedly, her family falsified her date of birth to July 1, 1961, to make her eligible for the matriculation exam. Rediff In the early 1960’s, when Kalpana Chawla was born, Karnal was notorious for its low girl child birth rate, where the birth of a boy prompted celebrations and congratulatory visits, while the birth of a girl was met with quiet disappointment. The New York Times
Grew up in a Joint Family
Kalpana Chawla was born to Banarasi Lal Chawla and Sanjyothi Chawla; she was the youngest of four children, two elder sisters, Sunita and Deepa, and one elder brother, Sanjay. After India’s Partition, her parents came to Karnal from the Multan district of West Punjab (now Pakistan) without any possessions. In Karnal, her father, Banarasi Lal Chawla, did several petty businesses, from selling toffees, groundnuts, dates, and soaps as a street hawker to fabricating metal boxes for storing provisions and even setting up a textile shop, and eventually, he ended up manufacturing tires when the Indian market was flooded with imported tires. Kalpana Chawla grew up in a joint family of 16 in Karnal, where she pursued her schooling at Tagore Baal Niketan Senior Secondary School. Although getting higher education was a taboo for girls in those days, her mother was always ready to fight for her daughters. Rediff
From ‘Monto’ to ‘Kalpana’
Strangely, her parents didn’t give her any formal name, and they would fondly call her ‘Monto,’ and it was only when they took her for admission to a nearby nursery school that they decided to give her a formal name. According to her sister Sunita, who took her for admission to the school, they had three names in mind, Kalpana, Jyotsna, and Sunaina, and when the school Principal asked her which name she would like to have, she replied firmly, ‘Kalpana!’ Rediff
Space Fantasy – from night stars to airplanes in the blue sky
While growing up in Karnal’s Model Town colony, Kalpana became curious about space-related things, and she would often gaze at night stars during the summer nights from the roof of her small house. The little Kalpana would often ask space-related questions but would receive unsatisfactory answers most of the time. Like stars in the night sky, she was captivated by the airplanes in the blue sky. Her house was a few kilometers away from ‘Karnal Aviation Club’ (now a part of the Haryana Institute of Civil Aviation), and she would often climb up to the roof to watch airplanes go roaring over her head. Kalpana was fascinated with airplanes so much that every time her teachers asked her class to draw a scenery, she would always draw airplanes flying in the sky. Rediff
Why we are divided into classes, sects, and religions?
At the age of eleven, Kalpana got an opportunity to have a thrilling joyride aboard a Pushpak after she persuaded her father to take her to the Aviation Club, and since then, flying became her first love. Kalpana was such an inquisitive and sensitive girl that after the joyride, she asked,
A Brilliant Student – who never scored the highest marks
Although Kalpana was always among the first five in her class, she never scored the highest marks. According to her teachers, she was sincere, hard-working, and attentive, and she always respected and admired her teachers. Although Kalpana enjoyed subjects like English, Hindi, and Geography, Science was her favorite subject, and she was fascinated by the teaching style of her science teacher Nirmala Namboodripad, who would explain even the most difficult theories of science in a simple and interesting manner. Apart from studies, she was an active participant in extra-curricular activities, and she would often participate in poetry and dance competitions at the annual day celebrations. She was a sportsperson and loved cycling and running, and she won many competitions in the races at sports meets. She also loved playing badminton and football. Rediff
When Kalpana grew into a young woman, she was not like any typical girl; she never put on makeup, and she loved to keep her hair short. She started wearing trousers or jeans and would never iron her clothes; moreover, she refused to cook. At her sister’s wedding, she wore the same dress for three days. She once quoted,
I Want to Become ‘A Flight Engineer!’
By high school, Kalpana had made up her mind that she wanted to become a flight engineer, and whenever she was asked what was her career options, she would promptly reply, ‘A Flight Engineer!’ The reason why she wanted to become a flight engineer was that she thought it was a flight engineer who designs airplanes, and she had no idea that flight engineers navigate an airplane during its flight. Reportedly, the first time her imaginative mind woke up to the possibility of traveling in space was when she saw a photograph of the Viking lander on Mars in a popular weekly. After passing her 10th class from the Haryana Board in 1976, she was admitted to DAV College for Women for her Pre-University; her elder sister also studied at the same college. Teachers at the DAV College noticed Kalpana’s interest in science and mathematics, and they encouraged her to go for higher studies. Later, she moved to Dyal Singh College for the Pre-Engineering course and passed with excellence following which she secured a seat at the Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh, where she studied aeronautical engineering. Reportedly, she was the only girl out of seven who opted for aeronautical engineering. She was so determined to study aeronautical engineering that during her admission, when she was asked what was her second option, she replied, ‘none!’ Although the teachers tried to convince her to shift to electrical engineering as aeronautical engineering had limited job opportunities, she refused to budge. Rediff
A Loner – who learned karate!
While studying aeronautical engineering at Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh, Kalpana eventually preferred to live alone in one room above a garage in a bungalow after changing to several hostels as she found them noisy and not suitable for her studies. She had very few select friends, and most of the time she would restrict herself to her studies. Meanwhile, Kalpana learned karate and became a black belt.
Her food preferences were simple, and she developed a hobby of collecting precious stones. During her college studies, she always kept herself updated with new developments in the aviation sector, and she would often read Kelly Johnson’s book on designing high-tech airplanes. Apart from her engineering studies, she loved to read the literary works of Ayn Rand, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Salman Rushdie, Richard Bach, and Oriana Fallaci. Kalpana was so humble and generous that she regularly paid the fees of one of her batchmates out of her pocket money without the girl’s knowledge. After writing on precious stones in the first year for the college magazine PECmag, she became its student editor in the subsequent years; she was also the joint secretary of the Aero and Astro club of the college. Kalpana Chawla actively participated in college sports meets, especially in running, cycling, and rope-skipping races. She always had high regard for her professors, especially V S Malhotra and S C Sharma of the Aeronautical Engineering division at Punjab Engineering College, who always encouraged and supported her. In 1982, Kalpana Chawla graduated with a BSc (Engineering) degree from Punjab Engineering College; she secured the third position in her class and became the first woman aeronautical engineer of the college. Her brilliance in studies and participation in various extra-curricular activities eventually helped in her selection to an American university. Rediff
Landed in the United States
In 1982, she moved to the United States for further studies despite her family’s, especially her father’s, disapproval, where she earned a master’s degree at the University of Texas and a doctorate at the University of Colorado. Meanwhile, she got married to a Frenchman, Jean Pierre Harrison, and became a naturalized citizen of the United States. For the first few years, her family did not talk to her; however, once she joined the space program, everyone was proud and elated. The New York Times
Working at NASA
In 1988, Kalpana Chawla got an opportunity to work at NASA Ames Research Center, where she worked on vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) concepts. In 1993, she was promoted to vice president and Research Scientist at Overset Methods, Inc., where she looked after the simulation of moving multiple body problems. Subsequently, she went on to have a Certificated Flight Instructor rating for airplanes, gliders, and Commercial Pilot licenses for single and multi-engine airplanes, seaplanes, and gliders. In April 1991, she applied for the NASA Astronaut Corps., which she joined in March 1995. While working at NASA, she requested the agency to invite her high school to participate in the Summer School Space Experience program conducted by the International Space School Foundation in Houston, and the program started in 1998, and two students would visit Houston for several weeks, spending much of their time at NASA each year. The program included dinner, Indian food cooked by Kalpana or her husband at their residence. Neha Sharma, one of the students who attended the program, once described a humble and down-to-earth Kalpana Chawla. Neha said that Kalpana would often encourage them and say,
First Space Mission
4,000 people applied to NASA’s astronaut program in 1994, but only 20 were selected; Kalpana was one of them. On November 19, 1997, when the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87 flew to space along with the six-astronaut crew, Kalpana Chawla became the first Indian-origin person to fly in an American space shuttle; she joined the crew as a mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator. During her first space mission which lasted from November 19, 1997, to December 5, 1997, Kalpana logged more than 376 hours (15 days and 16 hours) in space, and she traveled 10.67 million km; which equals 252 times around the Earth. NASA This mission was not without mishaps as she could not retrieve the 3,000-pound Spartan satellite, which spun away after the shuttle released it following which two astronauts had to go out on a spacewalk three days later to retrieve it. According to Kalpana, the mistake shook her confidence, and she feared her space career was over; however, her seniors encouraged her for her efforts. Kalpana talked about this to the University of Texas at Arlington magazine and said,
Second Space Mission – the tragic mission
After her first space mission, Kalpana Chawla became part of the crew of STS-107 in 2001. On January 16, 2003, the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia returned to space, where the crew performed nearly 80 experiments. On February 1, 2003, the STS-107 mission ended abruptly when the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew, including Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon, perished while re-entering the atmosphere of Earth. NASA
Reportedly, the main cause of the incident was a piece of foam insulation that broke off from the Space Shuttle’s external tank and struck the port wing of the orbiter during its launch due to which hot atmospheric gases penetrated and destroyed the internal wing structure during the shuttle’s re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003. The New York Times
Awards and Honours
Kalpana Chawla was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. NASA Many institutions and establishments in India and the United States are named after Kalpana Chawla.
A National Hero
Soon after Kalpana Chawla became the first Indian-origin person to fly in an American space shuttle in November 1997, she became so popular in India that she earned the status of a ‘national hero’ in the country. After the news of the lost space shuttle spread on February 1, 2003, there were expressions of shock and horror from everyone, from high government officials to Dr. Chawla’s elementary school classmates in India. According to R. S. Bhatia, who worked as head of the Washington office of the Indian Space Research Organization, Kalpana Chawla had become a symbol of India’s greatness, even though she was no longer a citizen. In an interview, Bhatia talked about this and said,
After her first flight, she became a national hero. She is an American citizen, but she is ours too. This is the most terrible tragedy. We have lost a hero.”