Kalpana-Chawla An Indian-American Woman in Space

Kalpana-Chawla An Indian-American Woman in Space :

In 1997, an Indian – American, Kalpana Chawla - was part of the international crew aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle, Columbia, becoming the first woman born in India to go into space. Sadly, the second mission in Columbia ended in tragedy.

In an unprecedented space tragedy, U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia, carrying India-born American astronaut Kalpana Chawla and six others, broke apart in flames as it streaked over Texas towards its landing strip on Saturday, 1 February 2003, killing all seven on board. The shuttle lost contact with NASA at about 9 a.m. (19.30 hrs 1ST) as it came in for landing. It was flying at an altitude of over 200,000 feet and traveling at over 20,000 km per hour when ground control lost contact with the shuttle.

Columbia had lifted off on 16 January 2003 from the Kennedy Space Center - Florida. It had stayed in orbit for 16 days and the seven-member crew conducted 80 experiments before it began its downward journey which ended in tragedy. This was Columbia’s 28th space flight and the shuttle was said to be good for 100 flights.

KALPANA Chawla said that she never dreamed as a child in Karnal that she would cross the frontiers of space. It was enough that her parents allowed her to attend engineering college after she graduated from Tagore School.

After a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering, against great opposition from her father, she went for a master’s degree to the United States of America. She later earned her Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian-American woman astronaut to blast off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral - Florida and participate in a successful mission in space. Her family from India cheered along with staff at the Kennedy Space Center as they watched the Columbia lift off.

Kalpana was born in Karnal – Haryana but was a naturalized U.S. citizen and married to flight instructor Jean-Pierre Harrison. Besides being an astronaut, she was licensed to fly single and multiengine land airplanes, single-engine seaplanes and gliders. She was also a certified flight instructor. After qualifying as a pilot, Kalpana began to consider another challenge…. applying to NASA’s space shuttle program. She was first hired as a research scientist at NASA. In 1994 she was selected by NASA for training as an astronaut.

When asked what it was like being a woman in her field she replied, “I really never, ever thought, while pursuing my studies or doing anything else that I was a woman or a person from a small city or a different country. I pretty much had my dreams like anyone else and I followed them. And people who were around me, fortunately, always encouraged me and said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, carry on’."

Kalpana’s first space mission in the space shuttle - Columbia was 15 days 16 hours and 34 minutes long. During this time she went around the earth 252 times traveling 10.45 million kilometers! The crew included Japanese and a Ukrainian astronaut. The crew performed experiments such as pollinating plants to observe food growth in space and tests for making stronger metals and faster computer chips - all for a price tag of about 56 million dollars.

On the Saturday night when the news about the Columbia disaster broke, there was shock and disbelief. The town of Karnal spent a sleepless night as thousands of households stayed glued to their television sets in the hope that Kalpana and the crew had somehow survived. A journalist wrote…She was a heroine. It takes enormous ability to become an astronaut. You need to know a lot about everything from biology to astrophysics to aeronautical engineering. In this age of super-specialization, you must have encyclopedic knowledge to be an astronaut. Her achievement is awe-inspiring.

For millions of young Indians - the story of Kalpana Chawla - a girl from a small town who touched the skies had become an inspiration. In a message that she sent from aboard the space shuttle - Columbia to students of her college in Chandigarh, Kalpana said, “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get onto it… . Wishing you a great journey."

There will surely be many who start off on this journey to fulfill their dreams.

Kalpana-Chawla An Indian-American Woman in Space

Kalpana-Chawla An Indian-American Woman in Space adapted from Span January / February 1998

Kalpana-Chawla An Indian-American Woman in Space :

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