Houston (Texas), Feb. 1: Dr Kalpana Chawla, the Indian American who was flying on the doomed US space shuttle Columbia for a second time, carried with her a silk banner paying tribute to her school teacher whom she had lost touch with, Nirmala Namboothiripad.

Kalpana, who became the first Indian-American astronaut flying to space on the same space shuttle on November 19, 1997, was a student from Karnal in Haryana, who always dreamt of flying.

Hailing from a traditional middle class family, Montu, as she was fondly called, was the youngest of four children. Even as a young girl, she was sketching and painting airplanes. At her school, Tagore Bal Niketan in Karnal, she made colourful charts and models depicting the sky and stars. For her Class XI project, she wrote a paper on Mars.

Egged on by her father, Banarasi Lal Chawla, a refugee who made his fortune selling soaps in Sonepat, she joined the Karnal Flying Club. She also refused to opt for medicine as a career.

When she decided to join the BSc course in Punjab University in Chandigarh, she happened to be the only girl in the Aeronautics batch.

She enjoyed flying, hiking, backpacking, and reading. She held a Certificated Flight Instructor’s licence and Commercial Pilots licences for single and multi-engine land airplanes and single-engine seaplanes, instrument rating, and Private Glider. She enjoyed flying aerobatics and tail-wheel airplanes.

She did a BSc in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College, 1982 and completed her MSc in Aerospace Engineering from University of Texas in 1984 and her Doctorate of Philosophy in Aerospace Engineering from University of Colorado in 1988. 

Kalpana was hired by MCAT Institute, San Jose, California, as a research scientist to support research in the area of powered fin at Nasa Ames Research Centre, California, in 1988. 

She was responsible for simulation and analysis of flow physics pertaining to the operation of powered lift aircraft such as the Harrier in ground effect.

In 1993 Chawla joined Overset Methods Inc., Los Altos, California, as vice-president and research scientist to form a team with other researchers specialising in simulation of moving multiple body problems. She was one of more than 2,000 applicants for a civilian scientist’s position on Columbia’s voyage. 

According to Nasa, her academic accomplishments, physical fitness and experience as a pilot made her a natural choice. Carving her identity in an otherwise men’s domain she comfortably rubbed shoulders with her male colleagues.

She was selected by Nasa in December 1994, and reported to the Johnson Space Centre in March 1995. She lifted off to space on November 10, 1997.

Kalpana’s teachers remember her as an extrovert. Father Banarsi Lal and mother Sanyogita live with the rest of the family in a south Delhi apartment. On Saturday, all that the shellshocked family could say was “We can’t believe it is happenning.”
Deccan Chronicle

Indian-Born American Astronaut Was Heroine in India

By Laurinda Keys
Associated Press Writer
Saturday, February 1, 2003; 12:29 PM

NEW DELHI, India –– Front pages of Indian newspapers Saturday carried pictures of Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman in space, to celebrate her expected return to earth on the space shuttle Columbia.

The return never happened after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart about 203,000 feet over Texas minutes before it was to land in Florida.

"What can anyone say except that we are aghast at the terrible tragedy," said V. Sundararamaiah, scientific secretary of the Indian Space Research Organization.

In India, which has launched satellites for years and is preparing for a moon orbit this decade, Chawla was a new kind of heroine.

Just before she lifted off on the Columbia space shuttle for her second trip to space, she told reporters that her inspiration to take up flying was J.R.D. Tata, who flew the first mail flights in India.

"What J.R.D. Tata had done during those years was very intriguing and definitely captivated my imagination," Press Trust of India quoted her as saying on Jan. 16.

After her first flight in 1997, she had told News India-Times of seeing India's Himalayan Mountains and mighty rivers from space.

"The Ganges Valley looked majestic, mind boggling," she said. "Africa looked like a desert and the Nile a vein in it."

Chawla was born 41 years ago in Karnal, about 80 miles north of New Delhi, in northern Haryana state. She emigrated to the United States from India in the 1980s and became a U.S. citizen.

Chawla's parents, two sisters and sister-in-law had gone to the United States to watch her flight, a family friend, Arun Sharma, said outside the home of her brother, Sanjay, in New Delhi.

Sanjay Chawla was watching TV news when he heard about the disaster, and was unable to make any comment, Sharma said.

The town's residents had planned a celebration, but were in shock and mourning on Saturday night.

Some 300 children at the Tagore Bal Niketan school that Chawla attended had gathered for an evening of song and dance to celebrate the expected landing of Columbia, said Principal Rajan Lamba in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

"A happy occasion turned into an atmosphere of disbelief shock and condolence," Lamba said.

Press Trust of India had calculated exactly when Indians could look to the skies and wave as the space shuttle carrying mission specialist Chawla flew past in the heavens. PTI told readers in southern Bombay and Madras which minute of the day they could hail their countrywoman.

The Times of India put her picture at the top of the front page in Saturday morning's editions, saying she and her crew mates were preparing for their homecoming.

Chawla graduated from the Tagore School in the mid-1970s and later received a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College.

After moving to the United States, she earned an advanced degree in the same field from the University of Texas and a doctorate in her specialty from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the late 1980s.

She became an astronaut in 1994. On her first space flight, she was blamed for making mistakes that sent a science satellite tumbling out of control. Other astronauts went on a space walk to capture it.

India Today magazine reported that NASA had absolved Chawla, rating her a "terrific astronaut," and saying the accident had resulted from a series of small errors.

On her 1997 flight, Chawla said that as the shuttle repeatedly passed over India, especially New Delhi, she pointed it out to the other crew members and said, "I lived near there."

© 2003 The Associated Press