Remembering The First Indian Woman Astronaut: Kalpana Chawla

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Remembering The First Indian Woman Astronaut: Kalpana Chawla

The first Indian-American astronaut to cross horizons and fly into the space in Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997, Kalpana Chawla, the ordinary woman with extraordinary courage is still inspiring millions even after 14 years of her death.

A woman of substance, Chawla, with her hard work and determination has become a role model to women all around the globe inspiring them to dream, achieve and contribute. With her big aspirations and bigger mettle, Kalpana was one of the seven astronauts who lost their lives in the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. Kalpana will always be remembered for her inspirational journey.

Here's a look into the epic life story of the first Indian-American woman Astronaut.

Here’s a look into the epic life story of the first
Indian-American woman Astronaut.

Born into a middle-class family to parents Banarsi Lal and Sanjyothi Chawla on March 17, 1962, in Karnal, a small town in Haryana (now in Punjab), Kalpana grew up in a male dominant society where girls were rarely given opportunities to live a life of their choice. However luckily for Kalpana, her mother was both liberal & supportive and encouraged her to dream on. Kalpana was the youngest amongst four siblings, elder sisters Sunita and Deepa and an elder brother Sanjay. 


Kalpana's journey began as Manto.

Kalpana’s journey began as Manto.

Youngest amongst her siblings, Manto followed her dreams breaking all the traditions just like her eldest sister. It was her sister who got her admission in the nursery school where Manto named herself Kalpna which means imagination.

Kalpana's dreams became reality with her family's support.

Kalpana’s dreams became reality with her family’s support.

Kalpana was not only good at studies but also enjoyed writing poetry, dancing, cycling & running and took part in all school events. She loved to lie down under the sky in night admiring airplanes and stars. Seeing airplanes, talking about them, even drawing stars, sky and planes elevated her excitement. She often used to share her interest in flying with her brother.

It was Kalpana's father who made her discover her love for flying and it was her mother who fought for Kalpana as she didn't follow the tradition of getting married at an early age and demanded to join a college for higher studies.

Kalpana completed her early education in Punjab and went on to the U.S. for further education.

Kalpana completed her early education in Punjab and went on
to the U.S. for further education.

Kalpana did her schooling from Tagore Bal Niketan School in Punjab and went on to Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh to complete her B.Tech in Aeronautical Engineering in 1982. That same year, she moved to the United States and in 1984 obtained an MSc. Degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. She obtained second masters in 1986 and a doctorate in Aerospace Engineering in 1988 from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

It was her love for flying that led Kalpana to make a career in space.

It was her love for flying that led Kalpana to make a career
in space.

Kalpana discovered her love for flying at an early age. She got inspired by the first Indian pilot, JRD Tata. She was a certified commercial pilot with a license to fly seaplanes and multi-engine airplanes. Kalpana, like her husband, also became a certified Flight instructor.

Chawla got married to her flying instructor.

Chawla got married to her flying instructor.

Kalpana got married in the year 1983 to Jean-Pierre Harrison, a flying instructor, and an aviation author. It was after her marriage that Chawla started working hard to achieve her dream of becoming an astronaut.  

Although an Indian, Kalpana didn't hesitate to tie knot with Jean-Pierre who was a French-American as Kalpana's brother convinced their parents and once again her family supported Kalpana in her decision.

Kalpana became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991.

became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991.

Before Kalpana acquired U.S. citizenship in April 1991 she was already working with NASA since 198 but applied for the Astronaut Corps after she became an American citizen.

Kalpana's experiences and dreams that come true with NASA.

Kalpana’s experiences and dreams that come true with NASA.

With a job offer from NASA, Chawla started working for NASA's Ames Research Center. In 1993 she became the Vice-President of Overset Methods Inc. She worked extensively with computational fluid dynamics research on Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing. Selected by NASA in December 1994, it was in March 1994 that Kalpana joined as an astronaut candidate in the 15th Group of Astronauts and became a part of NASA 'Astronaut Corps' in 1995. In November 1996 she was assigned as a mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on STS-87 and then assigned as a crew representative for shuttle and station flight crew equipment in January 1998. Kalpana then served as lead for Astronaut Offices Crew Systems and Habitability section.

Kalpana Chawla flew on STS-87 Columbia in 1997 and 2003 logging in a total of 30 days, 14 hours and 54 minutes in space.

Kalpana Chawla's first space mission: STS-87.

Kalpana Chawla’s first space mission: STS-87.

Kalpana's first space mission began on November 19, 1997. She was a part of the six-astronaut crew that flew Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87. Responsible for organizing the Spartan Satellite, Kalpana was unsuccessful in carrying on her role due to its malfunction. She was vindicated after a five-month NASA investigation identifying the satellite defied control due to some technical errors. After the completion of STS-87 Chawla was assigned a technical position and received a special award for her work.

In the meantime, Kalpana created history for being the first Indian-born woman to fly in space. She travelled over 10.4 million miles in 252 orbits of the Earth, logging more than 372 hours in space.

Kalpana Chawla's second space mission: STS-107.

Kalpana Chawla’s second space mission: STS-107.

It was in 2000 that Kalpana was assigned her second flight mission as a part of Flight STS-87. During this mission, Kalpana's responsibility included microgravity experiments. Kalpana with her team members conducted 80 experiments researching on advanced technology development, astronaut health and safety along with the study of Earth and space science.

The project got delayed until 2003 due to several mishaps and cracks being detected in the shuttle engine flow liners and it was on January 16, 2003, that Kalpana along with her six crew members finally returned to space aboard Columbia on the ill-fated mission.

Kalpana's second mission proved to be the last of her life.

Kalpana’s second mission proved to be the last of her life.

On February 1, 2003, while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere Columbia disintegrated over the Texas region killing all of the seven crew members aboard the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle burnt and disintegrated just 16 minutes before its landing. A damaged aluminium heat-insulating tile on the left wing of the shuttle caused the whole body of the shuttle to heat up, eventually burning it and killing all aboard.

Recognition and accolades for the role model.

Recognition and accolades for the role model.

Although an American citizen, Kalpana Chawla was considered as the pride of India and her achievements and life journey have been an inspiration to millions not only in India but across the globe. During her short stint as an astronaut, Kalpana was posthumously awarded three awards namely,

Congressional Space Medal of Honor

NASA Space Flight Medal

NASA Distinguished Service Medal

The then Prime Minister of India announced the meteorological series of satellites, MetSat, to be renamed 'Kalpana' in 2003. The first satellite of the series, 'MetSat-1', launched by India on September 12, 2002, was renamed 'Kalpana-1'.

In 2004, Government of Karnataka instituted 'The Kalpana Chawla Award' to recognise young women scientists.

NASA has dedicated a supercomputer to the memory of Kalpana Chawla.

Asteroid 51826 Kalpana Chawla, one of seven named after the Columbia's crew.

Chawla Hill, one amongst the seven peaks in a chain of hills, named the Columbia Hills, after each of the seven astronauts lost in the Columbia shuttle disaster named by The NASA Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Kalpana Chawla Planetarium in Jyotisar, Kurukshetra established by The Government of Haryana.

Kalpana Chawla Government Medical College (KCGMC) formed for women located in Karnal, Haryana where the Indian-origin astronaut Kalpana Chawla was born.

Kalpana's words of wisdom.

Kalpana’s words of wisdom.

"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", after returning from her first launch.

"You couldn't lose by working hard and everyone seemed to follow that rule, it helped instill the notion that no matter what the circumstances, you could indeed follow your dreams."

"Listen to the sounds of nature. Wishing you the best on your trek towards your dreams. Take good care of our fragile planet." Kalpana's final lines in an interview inspiring young adults to find their calling.

Kalpana Chawla timeline.

Kalpana Chawla timeline.

1962: Kalpana Chawla born as Manto on March 17th in Karnal.

1982: Complete her B.Tech in Aeronautical Engineering in 1982 and moved to the United States for further education.

1983: Married Jean-Pierre Harrison, a flying instructor, and aviation author.

1984: Got an M.S. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas in Arlington.

1988: Received a Ph.D. in the same field and began to work for NASA.

1991: Acquired the U.S. citizenship.

1993: Joined Overset Methods Inc. as Vice President and Research Scientist.

1995: Joined the NASA 'Astronaut Corps'.

1996: Assigned as the mission specialist for prime robotic arm operator on STS-87.

1997: Her first space mission on Flight STS-87. Also, became the first woman astronaut of Indian origin to travel in a Space Shuttle.

2000: Assigned on her second space mission as part of Flight STS-107.

2003: Chawla got a second chance for the mission on Flight STS-107. On February 1st the space shuttle broke down killing all aboard including Kalpana Chawla.

Sunita Williams continues Kalpana Chawla's dream.

Williams continues Kalpana Chawla’s dream.

The second woman astronaut of Indian descent Sunita Williams was nominated Chawla's 'caretaker' (a colleague appointed to look after an astronaut's needs) by her husband Jean-Pierre Harrison. "She more than anyone else would understand Kalpana because of her Indian father", said Harrison as he asked NASA to nominate Williams as a caretaker.

For Williams, Kalpana was "a great friend and a mentor". "I had to continue Kalpana's dream", says William who holds the record for seven spacewalks by a woman and most spacewalk time (50 hours, 40 minutes) for a woman. Sunita began her Astronaut Candidate training in August 1998. As a member of Expedition 14 and 15, she was assigned to the International Space Station and in 2012 Williams served as a Flight Engineer on Expedition 32 and Commander of Expedition 33.

A lesson all parents can learn from Chawla's family. 

A lesson all parents can learn from Chawla’s family. 

It was Kalpana's family who never forced their will on her and let her pursue her dreams. Their incredible support by sending her outside her birth city for higher education when no girl from her town had done so earlier and then sending her abroad to continue her education and after that never forcing her to come back and settle in India is a big lesson for parents who still in these times give better opportunities to their sons.

Kalpana's parents always motivated and appreciated her for the achievements and it played a huge role in making a name for her. Kalpana was always proud of her roots and often visited her hometown to motivate young girls as she always was by people around her.

"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 Chawla.

Sanjay Chawla, Kalpana's brother, and a successful businessman said, "To me, my sister is not dead. She is immortal. Isn't that what a star is? She is a permanent star in the sky. She will always be up there where she belongs."

The short but inspiring journey of Kalpana Chawla and her parent's role in making it a memorable one is a lesson to all the parents out there who think a girl child is a burden and do not give their daughters equal opportunity. Parents who force their will on their daughters to settle down with marriage and children should instead help her achieve her dreams and never know their daughter might be the next Kalpana Chawla giving an identity to herself and her parents across the whole wide world.

It's been 14 years, but Kalpana Chawla is still alive as a hero who made not only her family, her friends, her colleagues, but her country proud. The legend of Kalpana Chawla continues to inspire and will do so forever and ever. An ordinary woman with extraordinary courage who pursued her dreams and landed amongst the stars.

 "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."  Kalpana Chawla.

Does Kalpana's life inspire you to dream wild and work hard for it?