Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Kalpana Chawla, First Indian Woman in Space

Kalpana Chawla was born on March 17, 1962, in Karnal, East Punjab, India. Her family originally hails from Multan District (now in Pakistan) but settled in Karnal following the Partition of India. Kalpana’s official date of birth was altered to July 1, 1961 to make her eligible for the matriculation exam. As a child, Chawla was fascinated by aeroplanes and flying, and she went to local flying clubs and watched planes with her father.

In 1976, Chawla graduated from the Tagore School, where she was a high-performing student. After earning a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College, India, she moved to the United States in 1982 and obtained a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984. Chawla went on to earn a second Masters in 1986 and a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering in 1988 from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In 1988, she began working at NASA Ames Research Center, where she performed Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) research on vertical and short take-off landing concepts. Much of Chawla’s research is included in technical journals and conference papers. In 1993, she joined Overset Methods, Inc. as Vice President and a Research Scientist specializing in simulation of moving multiple body problems. Chawla also held a Certificated Flight Instructor rating for airplanes, gliders and a Commercial Pilot licenses for single and multi-engine airplanes, seaplanes and gliders. After becoming a naturalized United States citizen in April 1991, Chawla applied for the NASA Astronaut Corps. She joined the corps in March 1995 and was selected for her first flight in 1996.

Her first space mission began on November 19, 1997, where she was a part of the six-astronaut crew that flew the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87. Chawla was the first Indian woman to fly in space and described the weightlessness she felt as, “You are just your intelligence.” On her first mission, Chawla travelled over 10.4 million miles in 252 orbits of the earth, logging more than 372 hours (15 days and 12 hours) in space. During the STS-87 flight, 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. After the completion of STS-87 post-flight activities, Chawla was assigned to technical positions in the astronaut office to work on the space station.

In 2001, 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 such as the July 2002 discovery of cracks in the shuttle engine flow liners. On January 16, 2003, Chawla finally returned to space aboard Space Shuttle Columbia on the ill-fated STS-107 mission. The crew performed nearly 80 experiments studying Earth and space science, advanced technology development, and astronaut health and safety. During the launch of STS-107, Columbia’s 28th mission, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the Space Shuttle external tank and struck the left-wing of the orbiter. Previous shuttle launches had seen minor damage from foam shedding, but some engineers suspected that the damage to Columbia was more serious. NASA managers limited the investigation, reasoning that the crew could not have fixed the problem if it had been confirmed. When Columbia re-entered the atmosphere of Earth, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate and destroy the internal wing structure, which caused the spacecraft to become unstable and break apart. After the disaster, Space Shuttle flight operations were suspended for more than two years, similar to the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. Construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was put on hold; the station relied entirely on the Russian Roscosmos State Corporation for resupply for 29 months until Shuttle flights resumed with STS-114 and 41 months for crew rotation.

Chawla died on February 1, 2003 when the Columbia disintegrated over Texas during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Chawla’s remains were identified along with those of the rest of the crew members and were cremated and scattered at Zion National Park in Utah, following her wishes.

On February 5, 2003, the Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced that the meteorological series of satellites, MetSat, was to be renamed “Kalpana.” The first satellite of the series, “MetSat-1,” launched by India on September 12, 2002 was renamed “Kalpana-1.” 74th Street in the “Little India” of Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City has been renamed “Kalpana Chawla Way” in her honor. The Kalpana Chawla Award was instituted by the Government of Karnataka in 2004 to recognize young women scientists, and NASA has dedicated a supercomputer to Chawla. One of Florida Institute of Technology’s student apartment complexes, Columbia Village Suites has halls named after each of the astronauts from the STS-107 mission, and the NASA Mars Exploration Rover mission has named seven peaks in a chain of hills the Columbia Hills after each of the seven astronauts lost in the Columbia shuttle tragedy. One of them is Chawla Hill. Steve Morse from the band Deep Purple wrote the song “Contact Lost” in memory of the Columbia tragedy along with Chawla’s love for the band. Novelist Peter David named a shuttlecraft, the Chawla, after her in his 2007 Star Trek novel, Star Trek: The Next Generation: Before Dishonor. The Kalpana Chawla ISU Scholarship fund was founded by alumni of the International Space University (ISU) in 2010 to support Indian women’s participation in international space education programs, the Kalpana Chawla Memorial Scholarship program was instituted by the Indian Students Association (ISA) at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) in 2005 for meritorious graduate students, and the Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Recent Alumni Award at the University of Colorado was renamed after Chawla. The University of Texas at Arlington, where Chawla obtained her Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering, opened a dormitory named Kalpana Chawla Hall in 2004. In addition, the university dedicated the Kalpana Chawla Memorial on May 3, 2010, in Nedderman Hall, one of the main buildings in the College of Engineering.

“The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it. Wishing you a great journey.” — Kalpana Chawla

“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

by Nida Fatma


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Basu, Biman (May 2012). Retrieved (6 July 2013). Born on (17 March 1962) in Karnal, Haryana The Hindu. Chennai, India. (23 March 2004). Retrieved 10 June 2007.



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