Kalpana Chawla (March 17, 1962 – February 1, 2003) was an American astronaut, engineer, and the first woman of Indian descent to go to space. She first flew on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997 as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator. In 2003, Chawla was one of the seven crew members who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster when the spacecraft disintegrated during its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Chawla was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and several streets, universities and institutions have been named in her honor. The late astronaut is recognized as a national hero in India. She was in space for 336 hrs during research mission.
Chawla was born on March 17, 1962, in Karnal, Haryana, India, but her official date of birth was altered to July 1, 1961, to allow her to become eligible for the matriculation exam. As a child, Kalpana always wanted to fly high, she liked to draw pictures of airplanes. She went to local flying clubs and watched planes with her father. Chawla said “Every once in a while 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 we had a joyride in the Pushpak and a glider that the flying club had.”
In 1976, Chawla graduated from the Tagore School, where she was a high-performing student. After getting a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College, India, she moved to the United States in 1982 and obtained a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984. Chawla went on to earn a second Masters in 1986 and a PhD in aerospace engineering in 1988 from the University of Colorado Boulder.
In 1988, she began working at NASA Ames Research Center, where she did computational fluid dynamics(CFD) research on vertical and/or short take-off and landing(V/STOL) concepts. Much of Chawla’s research is included in technical journals and conference papers. In 1993, she joined Overset Methods, Inc. as Vice President and Research Scientist specializing in simulation of moving multiple body problems. Chawla held a Certificated Flight Instructor rating for airplanes, gliders and Commercial Pilot licenses for single and multi-engine airplanes, seaplanes and gliders). After becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in April 1991, Chawla applied for the NASA Astronaut Corps. She joined the corps in March 1995 and was selected for her first flight in 1996.
First space mission
Her first space mission began on November 19, 1997, as part of the six-astronaut crew that flew the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87. Chawla was the first Indian woman to fly in space. She spoke the following words while traveling in the weightlessness of space, “You are just your intelligence.” On her first mission, Chawla traveled over 10.4 million miles (16737177.6 km) in 252 orbits of the earth, logging more than 372 hours (15 Days and 12 Hours) in space. During STS-87, she was responsible for deploying the Spartan satellite which malfunctioned, necessitating a spacewalk by Winston Scott and Takao Doi to capture the satellite. A five-month NASA investigation fully exonerated Chawla by identifying errors in software interfaces and the defined procedures of flight crew and ground control. After the completion of STS-87 post-flight activities, Chawla was assigned to technical positions in the astronaut office to work on the space station.
Second space mission
In 2001, Chawla was selected for her second flight as part of the crew of STS-107. This mission was repeatedly delayed due to scheduling conflicts and technical problems such as the July 2002 discovery of cracks in the shuttle engine flow liners. On January 16, 2003, Chawla finally returned to space aboard Space Shuttle Columbia on the ill-fated STS-107 mission. The crew performed nearly 80 experiments studying Earth and space science, advanced technology development, and astronaut health and safety. During the launch of STS-107, Columbia‘s 28th mission, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the Space Shuttle external tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter. Previous shuttle launches had seen minor damage from foam shedding, but some engineers suspected that the damage to Columbia was more serious. NASA managers limited the investigation, reasoning that the crew could not have fixed the problem if it had been confirmed. When Columbia re-entered the atmosphere of Earth, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate and destroy the internal wing structure, which caused the spacecraft to become unstable and break apart. After the disaster, Space Shuttle flight operations were suspended for more than two years, similar to the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. Construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was put on hold; the station relied entirely on the Russian Roscosmos State Corporation for resupply for 29 months until Shuttle flights resumed with STS-114 and 41 months for crew rotation.
The crew of STS-107 in October 2001. From left to right: Brown, Husband, Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Anderson, McCool, Ramon
Chawla died on February 1, 2003, in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, along with the other six crew members, when the Columbia disintegrated over Texas during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, shortly before it was scheduled to conclude its 28th mission, STS-107. Chawla’s remains were identified along with those of the rest of the crew members and were cremated and scattered at Zion National Park in Utah in accordance with her wishes.