by Reems Thomas Kottackal
Mentor: Dr. Sukant Khurana
During my childhood, I had known teachers who tried to explain concepts in Science in simple terms and also those who evaded my questions with “you will learn that in higher classes”. While, as an adult I again found people of two kinds, a minority who wished to help me with all they knew and references to find out more and a majority who evaluated me based on my name, gender, age etc. before they gave me any reply. This often made me wonder how people broke the glass ceilings while trying at the same time to help those who were limited by the same. On a personal note, I often found that science to be quite as demanding much as it was in satisfying curiosity. Many a times to we require some form of institutional help, hands-on-practice and time to advance in science but at times sheer determination and hard-work can help us find a way out and I believe, Dr.Kalpana Chawla is the best example for this.
It was during my schooldays that I first heard of Kalpana Chawla, in a GK test to be specific. Later, I researched and tried to find out more about her. I was mesmerized by her determination and proud of her achievements because I knowing that she was almost my mother’s age I suppose I had a fair idea about how much developed India was during her times, how limited the opportunities and frequent the challenges were. Apart from glass-ceiling set by macho mind-sets, women are often burdened with responsibilities, concerns and limited support from family and peers hindering them from pursuing their dreams. “I’ve always been very determined. I don’t get easily discouraged.” said Dr.Kalpana Chawla. While researching about Dr.Kalpana Chawla, I had taken inputs from my friends and their mothers who stay and had studied at Karnal and in Haryana so that I may get a fair idea about life in Haryana during the days of Dr.Kalpana Chawla. Below I will try to provide a glimpse into life of Dr.Kalpana Chawla and her contribution to Science and the world.
Dr.Kalpana Chawla (17 March 1962–1 February 2003) was an American astronaut and the first woman and second person of Indian origin to travel to space. She was born on 17 March 1962 in Karnal of Punjab (now Haryana) state of India to Banarasi Lal Chawla and Sanjyothi Chawla as their fourth and youngest child. In order to allow her to be eligible for matriculation exam her birth date was altered to reflect in official documents as 1 July 1961. She was called K.C by her American friends and ‘Montu’ by members of her family. Being refugees of the partition, her family gained financial stability only slowly after trying their hand in different kinds of businesses. In her later years, she admitted to having realized the importance of hard work from watching her father build a successful career from the scratch. The name Kalpana means “idea” or “imagination”. Inspired by JRD Tata, India’s first licensed pilot and pioneer aviators, she showed keen interest in flying and all things space-related from her early childhood. She especially admired Tata’s adherence to the highest ethical standards in business activities and refusal to countenance any corrupt practices. Kalpana flew with a photo of JRD Tata on her first mission abroad Colombia in 1997.
She joined Tagore Bal Niketan in Karnal, during the time when girls rarely attended school. In most classrooms girl students made up barely 10% of the class strength. One of her teachers who taught her at school remembered that Kalpana had made a project which had huge, colourful charts and models depicting the sky and stars. When her fascination for flying became apparent, her father took her brother and her for a ride at the flying club in their town, which was a rarity in India at that time. It is from there that Kalpana got her first taste of flying.
When the wings formed
When she was in class ten, she decided to become an engineer. When her father was informed about this, he suggested that she should consider a more socially respectable profession, such as medicine or teaching and not something conventionally meant for boys. Her reply was simply, “This is what I really want to do”. At Punjab Engineering College, Kalpana became the first girl ever to enrol in Aeronautical Engineering programme, and one of the first four girls to enrol in any type of engineering programme in 1978. Once, two of Kalpana’s university teachers tried to dissuade her from choosing the field of Aeronautics and tried their best to convince Kalpana to choose any other field of Engineering other than Aeronautics. She was so determined that even after two hours of conversation she refused to change her decision. Her argument remained the same — “This is what I really want to do”. Getting admitted to a college in Chandigarh also required her to move out her hometown. Thus she set another milestone when most women in her country were expected to get married and ‘settle down’. While studying engineering at Punjab Engineering College, Kalpana Chawla paid educational fees of two students (one senior and another junior to her) who were from economically weaker families. “Kalpana was a determined and strong-headed person, fond of good food and precious stones,” recalled Dr Varinder Kaur, who was her roommate at Punjab University for a year during college days.
Life abroad — USA0
Often using philosopher Seneca’s words to describe her relationship with the universe, Kalpana used to say, “I was not born for one corner. The whole world is my native land.” Her mother was reluctant to grant her permission or finances even after she had qualified in the GRE test for pursuing higher studies abroad. Hoping that perhaps her mother would agree to her wishes if she did not go home for a couple of years, soon she took up the job as a teaching assistant in the college in which she had studied. “She was a born rebel. Much against the wishes of her father, who would rather have had her marry a businessman and get settled, she fought all odds and decided to opt for aeronautical engineering. She also went for higher studies to the USA against the wishes of her father. However, her stupendous success had softened him and he was very proud of her,” said Mrs Nagpal, a close relative of Dr.Kalpana.
Although Kalpana had also been accepted into graduate aeronautical engineering programme at Georgia Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, she chose the University of Texas at Arlington mistaking it to be the main campus of University of Texas. It also offered the inducement of assistantship, which made her eligible for in-state tuition fees, a significant discount on the rates normally charged for foreign students. She was granted 1 year assistantship for her first and second semesters, even though, as the letter of 22 March 1982 stated: “Normally assistantships are not offered to foreign students until they have completed at least one semester at The University of Texas at Arlington. However, due to your outstanding record and recommendations, we are offering you this half-time assistantship.”
Thus in 1982 she moved to the United States and in 1984 got a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. In 1983, Dr.Kalpana got married to Dr.Jean-Parrie Harrison, who was a flying instructor and an aviation author from who she learned to fly a plane. Dr.Chawla was licensed to fly single and multi-engine land airplanes, single-engine seaplanes and gliders and was also a certified flight instructor. In 1986, Dr.Chawla earned a second Masters and in 1988, a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder.
After receiving her doctorate, she got a job at NASA’s Ames Research Centre, California (ARC). The ARC focuses on astrobiology, supercomputing, robotic lunar explorations etc., all of which help in NASA’s space missions. Dr.Kalpana’s specific area of research at the centre was hovercraft designs for MCAT, California and powered lift computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research on airflow for exotic aircraft on vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) concepts where she tried to devise methods to accurately predict the pattern of air flow around an aircraft and applied the research to mapping flow solvers to parallel computers. The various projects she had participated in were documented in technical conference papers and journals.
In April 1991, after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, Dr.Chawla applied for the NASA Astronaut Corps. The same year, she began working at NASA’s Ames Research Centre and worked on power-lift computational fluid dynamics. In 1993, she joined Overset Methods, Inc. as its Vice President and Research Scientist and specialized in simulation of moving multiple body aerodynamic problems.
The astronaut’s first application to NASA was rejected in 1993. In 1994, Chawla was selected by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as an astronaut candidate to be part of their upcoming 16-day microgravity mission. She had reported to the Johnson Space Centre in March 1995, as an astronaut candidate in the 15th Group of Astronauts. “The quickest way may not necessarily be the best… The journey matters as much as the goal. Do something because you really want to do it. If you’re doing it just for the goal and don’t enjoy the path, then I think you’re cheating yourself.” she had once said in an interview. After one-year Ascan training and assessment, she was appointed as one of the crew representatives to work on the technical issues for the Astronaut Office EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches. Kalpana’s projects contained work on the development of Robotic Situational Awareness Displays and testing space shuttle control software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory.
Life abroad — Space venture: Mission STS-87
She was selected for her first flight in 1996 later was assigned as mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator of STS-87. Her first space mission began on November 17, 1996, as member of six-astronaut crew that flew the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-87. On her first mission, Chawla travelled over 10.4 million miles (16737177.6 km) in 252 orbits of the earth, logging more than 372 hours (15 Days and 12 Hours) in space.
The shuttle carried a number of experiments and observing tools on its trip. Dr.Kalpana’s duty on the mission was to operate a robotic arm to deploy the Spartan satellite used to study the outer layer of the Sun in collaboration with SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) a NASA/European spacecraft. The satellite malfunctioned and two other astronauts from the shuttle had to perform a spacewalk to recapture it. After completion of post-flight activities, a five-month long NASA investigation fully exonerated Chawla by identifying software and processes. Being a mission specialist, she was also responsible for heading several microgravity experiments while on board the spacecraft. Chawla was assigned technical positions after that and she received an award from her peers for her work. On her return, she talked about being blown away by the beauty and vastness of space. “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,” is what she said after her first flight.
Later in January 1998, she was appointed as crew representative for shuttle and station flight crew equipment, and afterward became the lead for Astronaut Offices Crew Systems and Habitability section. She was assigned to the development of Robotic Solution Awareness Displays (to improve crew awareness using robotic systems) and testing software in the SAIL. The NASA chief called her a “Terrific astronaut”.
Life abroad — Space venture: STS-107
In 2000, Dr.Chawla was selected as a mission specialist for her second flight as a part of the crew of STS-107. The mission was delayed due to various operating issues until on 16 January 2003 when Dr.Chawla returned to space aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. Over the course of the 16-day flight dedicated to science and research, the crew performed nearly 80 experiments which can only be conducted in a perfect vacuum and zero-gravity conditions such as the following. A camera that studied the effect of dust storms on climate, Solse-2 experiment which tested two instruments built to measure levels of ozone at different altitudes, producing flame balls which is the weakest form of fire, data about how wet granular materials like sand behave under pressure which can help gauge the extent of damage caused by earthquakes, experiments pertaining to daily human life, aroma of flowers in space, cells cultured in zero-gravity conditions which enhanced their genetic characteristics, making them potential sources to combat prostate cancer and so on. “Our mission is successful and we are all fine here,” was the last communication Kalpana Chawla’s family heard from her.
About 82 seconds after launch of STS-107, Columbia’s 28th mission, a piece of foam of the size of a suitcase broke off from the External Tank (ET) of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s left wing reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panels. This had likely created a 6–10-inch diameter hole which allowed hot gases to enter the wing when Columbia re-entered the atmosphere of Earth on 1 February 2003, thereby causing the spacecraft to become unstable and breaking it apart just 16 minutes before the scheduled landing at Cape Canaveral, in Florida, Kennedy Space Centre. The entire crew of seven was killed. NASA later redesigned the external fuel tank, pressure suits, and helmets and reduced the amount of foam used.
Dr. Chawla had logged a total of 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space during her two missions. Her remains were identified along with those of the rest of the crew members and were cremated and scattered at Zion National Park in Utah in accordance with her wishes. She is survived by her husband J.P.Harrison who later remarried and has a young son. He runs a publishing company in Los Gatos, Calif and has penned the biography of Dr.Kalpana Chawla named, “The Edge of Time: The Authoritative Biography of Kalpana”.
Kalpana Chawla had said in one of interviews, “I am born in space and will die in space”. Chawla was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honour, NASA Space Flight Medal and Distinguished Service Medal. On 5 February 2003, the Prime Minister of India announced that the meteorological series of satellites Met Sat, was to be renamed “Kalpana”. NASA has dedicated a supercomputer to Chawla. The University of Texas dedicated a Kalpana Chawla memorial at the Arlington College of Engineering in 2010.
“Always reach out for the stars…” the message scribbled by Kalpana Chawla on her own poster presented to her two nieces hangs in the rooms of the two girls. Her brother-in-law, Ved Vyas, who is married to Kalpana’s sister had said, “Very down-to-earth, she led a very simple life. She was very involved with day to day chores in the house also,” he said. He added, “When it came to work, her dedication was unmatchable. After she entered the space programme she was left with very little time for her family, but she never forgot her family and friends.”
Being a true rationalist at her heart, Kalpana once stated- “There are so many people who are arguing or fighting over issues which don’t have much relevance. We must all realize it is not worth it.” When asked what is it 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 form 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.”… If you want to do something, what does it matter where you are ranked? Nor does being a woman make a difference.” The closest she recalls as a discrimination was when a flight owner denied her the permission to fly his flight after seeing her. Though she faced a path laced with challenges to reach the heights she reached, she never let her mind to be accept that as an excuse. I would like to borrow the words of Banarasi Lal; Chawla Dr.Kalpana Chawla’s father: “My dear friend, Kalpana through her life has proved that there aren’t any shortcuts to stars (literally and figuratively) without perseverance. She has demonstrated what youth can achieve, what women are capable of, what each and every one of us can attain with determination and dedication. Her example will inspire the young to believe in themselves and set up such high goals, irrespective of whether the child is a boy or a girl. Next generation must carry Kalpana Chawla’s torch, the torch for the quest of knowledge handed over to them”. Kalpana Chawla’s life knows no parallel, which is probably why she is this century’s biggest trailblazer for Indian women in Science. She has broken the glass ceiling and has paved the way for so many others, a pioneer at her best.