- Education and Science
Kalpana Chawla - the First Indian Woman in Space
Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian-American woman in space and the first Indian-American to fly the space shuttle. She was one of seven astronauts killed in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.
Kalpana Chawla Biography
Kalpana Chawla's path to become an astronaut began in Karnal, India.
"None of our astronauts traveled a longer path to space than Kalpana Chawla," U.S. President George W. Bush said. "She left India as a student but she would see the nation of her birth, all of it, from hundreds of miles above."
Chawla knew that she wanted to be an aerospace engineer at an early age. She was influenced by watching the planes from the local flying clubs and by her father.
"Every once in a while," Chawla said, "we'd ask my dad if we could get a ride in one of these planes. And, he did take us to the flying club and get us a ride in the Pushpak and a glider that the flying club had."
She graduated from Tagore School, Karnal, India, in 1976 and received a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from India's Punjab Engineering College in 1982.
Then, she moved to the United States to go to graduate school at the University of Texas-Arlington, where she received a master's degree in aerospace engineering in 1984. Then, she moved to Boulder, Colo., to pursue a doctorate in aerospace engineering, which she received in 1988.
Her career with NASA began in 1988 when she went to work for the Ames Research Center in California. Chawla's work at Ames centered on powered-lift computational fluid dynamics, which involves aircraft like the Harrier.
She left Ames in 1993 to join Overset Methods Inc. in Los Altos, Calif., as vice president and research scientist. She headed a team of researchers specializing in simulation of moving multiple body problems. Her work at Overset resulted in development and implementation of efficient techniques to perform aerodynamic optimization.
However, the successful career outside of NASA was brief. The agency selected her as an astronaut candidate in December 1994, and she reported to Johnson Space Center in March 1995.
Her first flight was STS-87, the fourth U.S Microgravity Payload flight, on Space Shuttle Columbia from Nov. 19 to Dec. 5, 1997. She was a mission specialist and operated Columbia's robot arm.
She returned to space in Jan. 16, 2003, aboard Columbia. She served as mission specialist during the 16-day research flight. The STS-107 crew conducted more than 80 experiments.
Chawla and her six STS-107 crewmates perished Feb. 1, 2003, over Texas as Columbia was re-entering Earth's atmosphere en route to a landing at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
Chawla is survived by her husband. Her interests included hiking and backpacking. She also enjoyed flying. She held a Certificated Flight Instructor's license with airplane and glider ratings, Commercial Pilot's licenses for single- and multi-engine land and seaplanes, and Gliders, and instrument rating for airplanes.
In a memorial service on Feb. 4, 2003, Astronaut Office Chief Kent Rominger said that Chawla loved her work and was respected by her colleagues.
"Kalpana, or K.C. to her friends, was admired personally for her extraordinary kindness and technically for her strive for perfection," he said. "She had a terrific sense of humor and loved flying small airplanes with her husband and loved flying in space. Flying was her passion. She would often remind her crew as her training flow would be delayed and become extended, she would say, 'Man, you are training to fly in space. What more could you want?'"
During an STS-107 preflight interview, she was asked who inspired her. She responded that she was motivated by people who are giving it their all.
"I think inspiration and tied with it is motivation," she said. "For me, definitely, it comes every day from people in all walks of life. It's easy for me to be motivated and inspired by seeing somebody who just goes all out to do something."
Chawla was a motivated person who made an impression on others.
"When the sad news reached her hometown," Bush said, "an administrator at her high school recalled, 'She always said she wanted to reach the stars. She went there and beyond.' Kalpana's native country mourns her today and so does her adopted land."
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