Kalpana Chawla: An Out-of-the-world Tale
This is about the life of one of India’s bravest women – her grit and determination. Kalpana Chawla’s story is an example of the success which can be earned from hard work and persistence, and her life certainly serves as an inspiration to school children and youth, motivating them to take up new challenges in their lives. She was just another small town girl from a middle-class family. Kalpana means ‘imagination’, and her tale is about imagining and realising her dream.
Born on 17 March 1962 in Karnal, Haryana, Kalpana was called ‘Montu’ by the family. After completing her schooling in Karnal, Kalpana decided on a career in aeronautical engineering, and she joined Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh in 1978.
She was the first girl ever to enroll in the aeronautical engineering course, and one of the first four girls to undertake any engineering course at the Punjab Engineering College. Kalpana received her B.Sc. in aeronautical engineering in 1982. She continued her studies in the US and received an M.Sc. in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas in 1984 and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado in 1988.
Her family had migrated to India from Pakistan. Her father was into trade and her mother was a housewife.
Kalpana’s dream of flying into space was shaped during a flight over the plains of Haryana in a Pushpak aircraft as a young girl in the early 1970s. She still had a long way to go. After receiving her B.Sc. degree, Kalpana was offered a position with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in Bengaluru, but she turned down the offer and instead took up a position as a lecturer at Punjab Engineering College.
She decided to join the University of Texas and arrived in the US in September 1982. However, her father was initially not supportive of her going to the US at the thought of his daughter living alone in a strange place.
Among her many interests, Kalpana developed an interest for SCUBA diving and swimming.
In 1986, when she acquired US citizenship, she decided to apply to the NASA Astronaut Corps. After getting her Ph.D., she was offered a position as Research Scientist in the Computational Fluid Dynamics Group at NASA Ames Research Centre in Sunnyvale, California. She became a US citizen in April 1991.
After thorough psychological, physical and medical examinations and assessments, Chawla was accepted into the NASA Astronaut Corps in December 1994.
In November 1996, Kalpana was selected for the STS 87 – the 24th flight of space shuttle Columbia, which carried a six-member crew. Once in space, Kalpana noted that during her first day in orbit, ‘she constantly felt as if she were falling forward’. She also had difficulty in falling asleep in the space shuttle’s weightless environment.
This is natural because in the absence of gravitational cues the brain is unable to tell whether the body is lying down or standing up, which makes sleeping difficult.
Kalpana wanted to visit her motherland soon after the flight, but she was not allowed to, as relations between the US and India became strained after India’s underground nuclear tests on 11 and 13 May 1998.
Few years later, Kalpana was selected as a crew member for yet another space mission which was scheduled to take off in the summer of 2000. However, due to several delays, the final dates were pushed to 16 January 2003. It was a proud moment for her and her family. Her family was in Houston to witness the launch of the space mission. There were two video conferences which showed Kalpana in a light mood while in space. Although her parents enjoyed her antics, it was the last time they saw Kalpana.
On 1 February 2003, NASA’s space shuttle Columbia was destroyed during re-entry, killing all the seven crew members on board, including Kalpana. The news of Columbia disintegrating over Texas and Louisiana as it entered the Earth’s atmosphere was aired on all channels.
In Kalpana’s death certificate, the place of death was noted as ‘Airspace over Texas’.