Kalpana Chawla: Inspiring Millions of Indian Women to Dream and Achieve
In history, certain individuals have shined as guiding lights, illuminating the path for generations to come. In the vastness of the cosmos, there lies an extraordinary tale of a woman whose determination and brilliance transcended the boundaries of Earth. Kalpana Chawla, a name etched in the annals of history, continues to inspire millions of Indian women to reach for the stars, quite literally. Her journey from a small town in India to the boundless expanse of space serves as a testament to the power of dreams and the strength of the human spirit. Let us embark on this cosmic odyssey and explore the life of Kalpana Chawla, a true icon and a beacon of hope for generations to come.
A Meteoric Rise: Early Life and Education
Kalpana Chawla was born on March 17, 1962, in Karnal, a modest town in the northern state of Haryana, India. Kalpana was the youngest of four children born to Banarasi Lal Chawla and Sanjyothi Chawla.
Chawla hadn’t been given a name until she started school. Her parents called her Montu, but when she started school, Chawla chose her own name from a list. Kalpana is a name that means “idea” or “imagination.” She was often known by the nickname ‘K.C.’
From a young age, her fascination with the skies above knew no bounds. After seeing a plane for the first time when she was about three years old, Chawla became interested in flying. Stargazing and observing the celestial dance became her cherished pastimes. She expressed an interest in aviation while in school and spent days visiting her local flying club with her father. Little did she know then that these innocent curiosities would lay the foundation for her journey into the cosmos.
With unwavering support from her parents, Kalpana pursued her education with zeal. She excelled in academics, particularly in mathematics and science. Kalpana Chawla finished her schooling at Tagore Baal Niketan Senior Secondary School, Karnal, India. After completing her schooling, she set her sights on engineering. Undeterred by societal norms, she enrolled at Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh, where she earned her Bachelor of Engineering degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1982. Kalpana’s ambitions soared higher as she set her course for the United States, where she would eventually find herself amidst the stars.
Soaring to New Heights: NASA and Beyond
In pursuit of her dreams, Kalpana Chawla moved to the United States in 1982 to further her studies. Her relentless pursuit of excellence earned her a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas, Arlington, in 1984. In 1986, Kalpana Chawla completed her second M.S. degree. Her insatiable thirst for knowledge and her desire to push boundaries led her to obtain a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1988.
In 1994, Kalpana Chawla’s life would take an awe-inspiring turn when she joined the esteemed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a Research Scientist at the Ames Research Centre. Her brilliance and dedication caught the attention of the space agency, and in 1996, she was selected as an astronaut candidate, marking the beginning of her extraordinary journey into space.
At the age of 21, Kalpana Chawla married Jean-Pierre Harrison on December 2, 1983.
Dancing Among the Stars: Kalpana’s Space Missions
Kalpana Chawla’s first foray into space came in 1997, when she served as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia. This historic mission, STS-87, made her the first Indian-born woman to travel to space. Her passion for space exploration and her commitment to scientific research shone through as she conducted experiments that advanced our understanding of the universe.
Chawla said after her maiden space flight, “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.”
Chawla was chosen in 2000 to participate in STS-107 as a mission specialist on her second trip into orbit. The mission’s launch was finally accomplished on January 16, 2003, after numerous delays.
According to NASA, the crew completed more than 80 experiments over the course of the 16-day journey while maintaining a rigorous shift schedule to guarantee that the research never ceased. The STS-107 crew tested equipment that NASA hoped to use to reuse water on the young International Space Station, among other things. Students from elementary schools all throughout the world conducted experiments that examined how fish and insects react to space travel, and another set of experiments explored the sun.
The Spacehab research module, a sizable pressurised chamber, was specifically transported on this voyage inside the shuttle’s payload bay. The Spacehab module’s experiments were mostly in the fields of biology and medicine.
Chawla spent 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space between her two missions.
Her second space voyage in 2003, aboard the ill-fated STS-107 mission, would tragically be her last. Her mission aimed to unravel the mysteries of space and their impact on various aspects of life on Earth. However, fate had a different plan, and the Space Shuttle Columbia tragically disintegrated upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, claiming the lives of all seven astronauts, including Kalpana Chawla.
The space shuttle made its way back to the planet on the morning of February 1, 2003, with the goal of landing at Kennedy Space Centre. However, a briefcase-sized piece of insulation that had come loose during launch damaged the thermal protection system, which is the shield that shields the shuttle from heat during re-entry, and hot gas began to pour into the shuttle’s wing as it travelled through Earth’s atmosphere.
The astronauts were tossed around as the shaky vehicle rolled and bucked. The crew perished when the ship’s pressure suddenly dropped in less than a minute. Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon, David Brown, William McCool, and Michael Anderson were also on board.
Before hitting the earth, the spacecraft disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana. Following the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986, the catastrophe was the second significant setback for the space shuttle programme.
Pieces of the Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster Discovered in Texas
A piece of debris from NASA’s space shuttle Columbia has been discovered in Texas, eight years after the 2003 disaster that destroyed the spacecraft and killed its seven-astronaut crew during re-entry. It is a round aluminum power reactant storage and distribution tank from Columbia, which disintegrated over Texas as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere near the end of a 16-day science mission.
About 160 miles northeast of Houston, in Nacogdoches, Texas, the tank was found in an open region of Lake Nacogdoches.
In an effort to prevent a repeat of the Columbia accident, NASA and other organisations both looked into it. Examples include the 2008 NASA Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s 2003 report.
Every year on the last Thursday of January, NASA commemorates the deaths of the Columbia crew, as well as the crews of the Challenger space shuttle and Apollo 1. The fatal missions are also frequently brought up when NASA staff members highlight the significance of prioritising safety in human spaceflight.
Since the Columbia catastrophe, there has not been a fatal NASA mission.
Honours and Recognition
In the Realm of Space
- S.S. Kalpana Chawla: The fourteenth contracted Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft mission, which delivered supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), was named the S.S. Kalpana Chawla in her honour.
- Asteroid 51826 Kalpana Chawla is one of seven asteroids named after the Columbia’s crew members.
- Lunar Crater “Chawla”: A lunar crater was named after Kalpana Chawla, a fitting tribute to her journey as an astronaut.
- Kalpana-1 Satellite: The first satellite of the MetSat series, launched by India on September 12, 2002, was renamed “Kalpana-1” in her memory.
- Columbia Hills Peaks: Seven peaks in the Columbia Hills, explored by the NASA Mars Exploration Rover mission, were named after each of the seven astronauts lost in the Columbia shuttle disaster. One of these peaks is Chawla Hill, commemorating Kalpana’s contribution to space exploration.
On Earth, Her Light Shines bright.
- Kalpana Chawla Way, New York: 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City, was renamed “Kalpana Chawla Way” in honour of the astronaut.
- Kalpana Chawla Street, Tamil Nadu: A street in Rayon Nagar, Sirumugai, Tamil Nadu, India, was named Kalpana Chawla Street in her memory.
- Kalpana Chawla Award: The Government of Karnataka instituted the Kalpana Chawla Award in 2004 to recognise young women scientists.
- NASA Supercomputer Dedication: NASA dedicated a supercomputer to Kalpana Chawla, acknowledging her contributions to the space agency.
- Columbia Village Suites: One of Florida Institute of Technology’s student apartment complexes, Columbia Village Suites, has halls named after each of the astronauts, including Chawla.
Commemorations in Literature, Music, and More
- “Contact Lost” by Steve Morse: In memory of the Columbia tragedy, Steve Morse from the band Deep Purple created the song “Contact Lost.” Kalpana carried the band’s album Machine Head, featuring the song “Space Truckin’,” with her on the mission.
- Star Trek Tribute: Novelist Peter David named a shuttlecraft, the Chawla, after the astronaut in his 2007 Star Trek novel, Star Trek: The Next Generation: Before Dishonour.
Empowering Future Generations
- Kalpana Chawla ISU Scholarship: The Kalpana Chawla ISU Scholarship Fund was established by International Space University (ISU) alumni in 2010 to support Indian women’s participation in international space education programmes.
- Kalpana Chawla Memorial Scholarship: The Indian Students Association (ISA) at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) instituted the Kalpana Chawla Memorial Scholarship programme in 2005 for meritorious graduate students.
- Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Recent Alumni Award: The University of Colorado renamed the Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Recent Alumni Award in her honour.
Institutions Named in Her Memory
- Kalpana Chawla Hall, University of Texas Arlington: The University opened a dormitory named Kalpana Chawla Hall in 2004 to honour her achievements.
- Kalpana Chawla Planetarium, Jyotisar: The Government of Haryana established the Kalpana Chawla Planetarium in Jyotisar, Kurukshetra, as a tribute to her contribution to space exploration.
- Kalpana Chawla Space Technology Cell: The Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, named a space technology cell after her, recognising her impact on the field of aerospace engineering.
Inspirations Across Educational Institutions
Numerous educational institutions have named hostels and buildings after Kalpana Chawla, fostering a culture of aspiration and empowerment among students.
A Star in the Sky
- Satellite “Kalpana”: On April 1, 2022, a satellite named after Kalpana Chawla (ÑuSat 24 or “Kalpana,” COSPAR 2022-033X) was launched into space as part of the Satellogic Aleph-1 constellation, symbolising her eternal presence among the stars.
Note: The information provided here is based on the Wikipedia article on “Kalpana Chawla” and various other sources.
Leaving a Celestial Legacy: Inspiring Generations
Seven asteroids were christened with the crewmember names shortly after the Columbia accident as a “celestial memorial.” NASA also gave seven hills on Mars names in honour of the lost crew to commemorate the disaster’s first anniversary.
In 2010, a memorial to Kalpana Chawla was established at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Engineering. A flying suit, pictures, details about Chawla’s life, and a flag flown over the Johnson Space Centre during a memorial for the Columbia astronauts were all part of the exhibit when it first opened.
A commercial cargo rocket named after Chawla was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) in October 2020. The Cygnus capsule built by Northrop Grumman was given the name S.S. Kalpana Chawla because it is corporate policy to name each Cygnus spacecraft after a significant figure in the history of human spaceflight.
According to a statement from Northrop Grumman, “Chawla was selected in honour of her prominent place in history as the first woman of Indian descent to go to space.”
Chawla was passionate about giving young Indian girls the opportunity to study science; therefore, NASA invited her secondary school to participate in its Summer Space Experience Programme when she was an astronaut. Since 1998, the school has sent two girls annually to the United Space School run by the Foundation for International Space Education in Houston, and Chawla has hosted them for an Indian dinner in her house.
Kalpana Chawla’s legacy transcends the boundaries of time and space. Her indomitable spirit and unwavering commitment to exploration continue to inspire generations of Indian women to break free from societal norms and reach for the stars. Her journey serves as a poignant reminder that the pursuit of dreams requires courage, perseverance, and an unyielding belief in oneself. Her life story stands as a testament to the fact that gender, ethnicity, or background should never limit one’s aspirations.
“The Edge of Time,” a biography written by Jean-Pierre Harrison, the widower of Chawla, was released in 2011.
Her legacy lives on through various initiatives and scholarships established in her name, empowering young women in India to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Kalpana’s story serves as a guiding light, urging future generations to believe in themselves, reach for the stars, and embrace the pursuit of knowledge.
In the history of humankind, especially the Indian Diaspora, Kalpana Chawla’s life constantly reminded us of the vastness of human potential. Her story reverberates through the ages, echoing a powerful message of resilience and determination. From the small town of Karnal to the infinite reaches of space, Kalpana’s legacy kindles the flames of aspiration in the hearts of those who dare to dream and, most importantly, women.
In penning this cover story for WFY Magazine, and as we gaze up at the night sky, let us remember Kalpana Chawla, a trailblazer who defied gravity and the confines of society, inspiring us to reach new heights in our own lives. Her story resonates as a reminder that our dreams, like stars in the sky, know no bounds—they are limitless, waiting for us to take flight and make them a reality. And so, let us carry her legacy forward, igniting the spark of curiosity and ambition in the hearts of generations yet to come.