Kalpana Chawla: India's first woman astronaut

Kalpana Chawla was an Indian-born American astronaut and space shuttle mission specialist. A girl who had always dreamt of the moon and the stars had herself become a star. Not only did she achieve her dreams but she also led her life with the highest sense of values and purpose in every respect. The space shuttle Columbia, while returning to Earth, disintegrated in air on 1st Feb, 03 about 16 minutes before it was scheduled to touch down, killing all seven crew members."Kalpana, or K.C. to her friends, was admired personally for her extraordinary kindness and technically for her strive for perfection,"


Kalpana Chawla was born in Karnal, Haryana on 1st July, 1961. Kalpana is a Sanskrit name meaning "idea" or "imagination.".Her father Banarsi Lal Chawla was then a leading industrialist of Karnal and owned a Tire factory. Her mother Sanyogita Chawla, a housewife, expected a boy as her last child, when Kalpana was born. Chawla's family were refugees from Pakistan who settled in Karnal after partition in 1947. Her parents had seen great hardships and were in dire straits during partition but had struggled to pull themselves up. However, they were able to provide good education to Kalpana and her two siblings

Her elder sister Sunita Chaudhary and her sister in law, Anjali Chawla are ardent bird watchers in Delhi. Her brother Sanjay is a businessman.Kalpana got married to Jean Pierre Harrison, a flying instructor in 1983, and became a naturalized United States citizen in 1990.


In 1976, she did her schooling from Tagore Bal Niketan school, Karnal. She did her pre-university and pre-engineering from Dayal Singh College, Karnal.A brilliant academic record straight through school Kalpana took part in almost everything, from athletics to dance to science modeling.

Chawla studied aeronautical engineering at Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh, India, in 1982, she happened to be the only girl in the aeronautics batch, where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree. Her family initial resisted her decision but they also knew that she was one determined woman and nothing could stop her.

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. Chawla earned a second Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering in 1986 Then, she moved to Boulder, Colo., to pursue a doctorate in aerospace engineering, which she received in 1988.Later that same year she began working for NASA Ames Research Center.

Chawla held a Certificated Flight Instructor rating for airplanes , gliders and Commercial Pilot licenses for single and multiengine airplanes, seaplanes and gliders.She held an FCC issued Technician Class Amateur Radio license with the call sign KD5ESI.Her interest in flight was inspired by J. R. D. Tata, a pioneering Indian pilot and industrialist.


Chawla and her husband lived adjacent to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Chawla was a strict vegetarian, in observance to her Hindu faith. On her mission, she carried a white silk banner as part of a worldwide campaign to honor teachers, as well as nearly two dozen CDs, including ones by Abida Parveen, Yehudi Menuhin, Ravi Shankar, and Deep Purple. She went to her first rock concert, a Deep Purple show, in 2001 with her husband. "Kalpana is not necessarily a rock music aficionado," her husband said of a Deep Purple show, "...but (she) nevertheless characterized the show as a 'spiritual experience.'" She enjoyed birdwatching, backpacking, hiking, flying, and reading. Quoting philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca she always said, "I was not born for one corner; the whole world is my native land."

Hobbies: Kalpana was a person of varied interests . . Kalpana Chawla enjoyed flying, hiking and back-packing. She held 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. She enjoyed flying aerobatics and tail-wheel airplanes. She enjoyed nature in all its glory; she was an avid birdwatcher. In one of her several interviews addressing a younger audience, she had said (words to these effect): "don't go after the fleeting pleasures of life, go for more permanent things."

A Spiritual Person: She was passionate about music and reading. She would consciously explore and broaden her horizons in her areas of interest. Her husband, Jean-Pierre Harrison who himself was a freelance flying instructor fuelled her interest in different music. Here is an interesting nugget that throws light on the remarkable person that she was. While she was well versed with Indian classical music, her husband introduced her to rock groups like Deep Purple. After the concert, she is supposed to have commented that it was a spiritual experience.

"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."

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."

Chawla was a motivated person who made an impression on others. Despite her fame, she was truly a down to earth person! She had a great bonding with her classmates from the Tagore school and was highly respectful of her teachers. Even after becoming a famous astronaut, she diligently kept in touch with some of her closest friends to the end of her life.


Hailing from a traditional middleclass family, Kalpana was the youngest of the four children. Different from her peers even as a young girl, sketching and painting airplanes were more her forte than dressing up Barbie dolls.

Sanjay, her brother was her sole mentor throughout her journey as both of them shared the same dream and vision - to fly. Sanjay's plans of being a commercial pilot were shattered when his medical reports were not upto the mark. Kalpana went ahead to make her brothers and her own dreams come true and mind you it hasn't been smooth sailing.


On what Fears described as a "lark," Chawla joined a pool of 2,000 astronaut candidates. She did not think she would be accepted, and had never really expressed interest in being an astronaut to her colleagues around her. In 1988, Kalpana Chawla started work at NASA Ames Research Center in the area of powered-lift computational fluid dynamics. Her research concentrated on simulation of complex air flows encountered around aircraft such as the Harrier in "ground-effect." Following completion of this project she supported research in mapping of flow solvers to parallel computers, and testing of these solvers by carrying out powered lift computations. In 1993 Kalpana Chawla joined Overset Methods Inc., Los Altos, California, as Vice President and Research Scientist to form a team with other researchers specializing in simulation of moving multiple body problems. She was responsible for development and implementation of efficient techniques to perform aerodynamic optimization. Results of various projects that Kalpana Chawla participated in are documented in technical conference papers and journals.

Chawla was the first Indian-born woman and the second person of Indian origin to fly in space, following cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma who flew in 1984 in a Soviet spacecraft. It must be noted that while Rakesh Sharma represented India, Chawla was an American astronaut who represented the United States. Sharma and Chawla never met despite their common interests.

Astronaut: Kalpana was selected by NASA in December 1994, as an astronaut candidate in the 15th Group of Astronauts. She reported to the Johnson Space Center in March 1995. After completing a year of training and evaluation, she was assigned as crew representative to work technical issues for the Astronaut Office EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches. Her assignments included work on development of Robotic Situational Awareness Displays and testing space shuttle control software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory.


First Mission: Kalpana Chawla was mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on Space shuttle mission STS-87. This mission from 19/11/97 to 05/12/97 lasted 15 days, 16 hours, 34 minutes. STS-87 was the fourth U.S Microgravity Payload flight and focused on experiments designed to study how the weightless environment of space affects various physical processes, and on observations of the Sun's outer atmospheric layers. Two members of the crew performed an EVA (spacewalk) which featured the manual capture of a Spartan satellite, in addition to testing EVA tools and procedures for future Space Station assembly.

In completing her first mission, Kalpana Chawla traveled 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of the Earth and logged 376 hours and 34 minutes in space. In January, 1998, Kalpana Chawla was assigned as crew representative for shuttle and station flight crew equipment. Subsequently, she was assigned as the lead for Astronaut Office’s Crew Systems and Habitability section.

Second Mission: She was one of the seven members of the crew of STS-107 as Mission Specialist. This mission from 16/01/03 to 01/02/03 lasted 15 days, 22 hours, 21 minutes and resulted in her tragic death. The 16-day flight was a dedicated science and research mission. Working 24 hours a day, in two alternating shifts, the crew successfully conducted approximately 80 experiments.

For the second mission, she had carried with her CDs of her favourite artistes like Abida Parveen, Pt. Ravi Shankar and Deep Purple, among others. She planned to autograph them in space and gift it as mementoes to these artistes. But that was not to be. Sixteen minutes short of the scheduled landing, Kalpana Chawla became one with the cosmos she so loved.

In all she logged 30 days, 14 hours and 54 minutes in space.

Chawla's responsibilities included the SPACEHAB/FREESTAR microgravity experiments, for which the crew conducted nearly 80 experiments studying earth and space science, advanced technology development, and astronaut health and safety. . Prior to STS-107, Chawla logged more than 376 hours in space.

Chawla's last visit to India was during the 1991 - 1992 new year holiday when she and her husband spent time with her family. For various reasons, Chawla was never able to follow up on invitations to visit India after she became an astronaut.

When the space crew for the Columbia STS-107 was chosen, the five men and two women would end up spending more time together than most other crews in history--in part, due to delays in the schedule. Through the team's rigorous training and daily lives, they were prepared for their adventure in space that took off on January 16 and was set to return on February 1. Chawla was excited about her second trip and had sent an e-mail to a friend from space saying that having the chance at another trip was "like having a wonderful dream again."

As a member of the Red Team, Chawla worked with the commander, Rick Husband, responsible for maneuvering Columbia.

The experiments on which she also worked included Astroculture (AST); Advanced Protein Crystal Facility (APPCF); Commerical Protein Crystal Growth (CPCG_PCF); Biotechnology Demonstration System (BDS); ESA Biopack (eight experiments); Combustion Module (CM-2), including the Laminar Soot Processes (LSP), Water Mist Fire Suppression (MIST), and Structures of Flame Balls at Low Lewisnumber (SOFBALL) experiments; Mechanics of Granular Material (MGM); Vapor Compression Distillation Flight Experiment (VCD FE); and, the Zeolite Crystal Growth Furnace (ZCG).

Here are some excerpts from NASA's official pre-flight interview for STS-107

Can you talk a little bit about the interest you had growing up and maybe some of the things that may have put you on the road to NASA? How did you get here? What was it about science that intrigued you? That helped you?

When I was going to high school back in India, growing up, I think I was very lucky that we lived in a town which is a very small town and one of a handful of towns at that time which had flying clubs. And, we would see these small Pushpak airplanes, which are not much different from Piper J3 Cubs that you see in the U.S. that students were flying as part of their training programs. Me and my brother, sometimes we would be on bikes looking up, which you shouldn't be doing, trying to see where these airplanes were headed. 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 get us a ride in the Pushpak and a glider that the flying club had. I think that's really my closest link to aerospace engineering that I can dig deep down and find out, out there. Also growing up, we knew of this person, J. R. D. Tata in India, who had done some of the first mail flights in India. And also the airplane that he flew for the mail flights now hangs in one of the aerodromes out there that I had had a chance to see. Seeing this airplane and just knowing what this person had done during those years was very intriguing. Definitely captivated my imagination. And, even when I was in high school if people asked me what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. In hindsight, it's quite interesting to me that just some of those very simple things helped me make up my mind that that's the area I wanted to pursue. During our school year in India, we have to figure out kind of early what particular subjects you want to pursue. Basically when you are in eighth grade, around 12 years of age, you have to pick up a track - whether you're going science (as in engineering) or science (as in medical). And, that probably is the earliest decision point when I said, "Since I'm going to do aerospace engineering, I'm going to study physics, chemistry, and math." And from then on, pretty much you are on a set track. And hoping, if, you know, this is what you want to do, and if it doesn't come out true that there are some other options that you have (which I did). And after pre-engineering, which is equivalent of 12th grade in US - by which time now you've been specializing in basically physics, chemistry, and math and some language - you are ready to go to an engineering college or another profession of your choice by taking part in exams or simply answering questionnaires and based on merit of your results. I was lucky to get into aerospace engineering at Punjab Engineering College. And really in my case the goal was, at that stage anyway, to be an aerospace engineer. The astronaut business is really, really farfetched for me to say, "Oh, at that time I even had an inkling of it." Aircraft design was really the thing I wanted to pursue. If people asked me what I wanted to do, I remember in the first year I would say, "I want to be a flight engineer." But, I am quite sure at that time, I didn't really have a good idea of what a flight engineer did. Because flight engineers do not do aircraft design, which was an area I wanted to pursue and did pursue in my career. And, it's sort of a nice coincident that that's what I am doing on this flight.

And can you tell us about some of the people in your life that inspired you, or maybe still inspire you, to do what you're doing now?

I think inspiration and tied with it is motivation. 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. For example, some of the teachers in high school. The amount of effort they put in to carry out their courses. The extra time they took to do experiments with us. And then, just the compliments they gave students for coming up with ideas - new ideas - [that], in hindsight, I wonder how they even had the patience to look at these. In general during my life, I would say I've been inspired by explorers. Different times during my life I've read books. More recently, say about Shackleton, the four or five books written by people in more recent times, and then during the expedition. And then some of the incredible feats these people carried out; like making [it] to the Pole almost, but making the wise decision to stop a hundred miles short and return. Lewis and Clark's incredible journey across America to find a route to water, if one existed. And, the perseverance and incredible courage with which they carried it out. Patty Wagstaff. You know, she started out kind of late flying aerobatic airplanes. And then had the where-with-all to say that she was going to take part in the championships. And then, became an unlimited U.S. champion three times in a row. And, that's not men's or women's; that's The Champion. There are so many people out there that just how they have done some incredible things. And how they inspire. You know, in explorers, Peter Matthiessen and how he has explored the whole world and chronicled life, animals and birds as they exist. And, he's done it by simply walking on his feet. You know, across [the] Himalayas. Across Africa. When I read about these people, I think the one thing that just stands out is their perseverance in how they carried out what they wished to carry out.


Some Facts about Dr. Kalpana Chawla

  1. First and only Indian-American in space (she was born in India and became a naturalized U.S. citizen)
  2. Selected as an astronaut in 1994; first mission in 1997, this was her second mission
  3. U.S. doctorate & M.S. in aerospace engineering and B.S. in aeronautical engineering from India
  4. Second Indian in space, after Indian citizen Rakesh Sharma, who flew on a Soviet mission
  5. One of only a handful of Asian American astronauts and the only South Asian
  6. Married to Frenchman Jean-Pierre Harrison, a freelance flying instructor
  7. Born: July 1, 1961, in Karnal, India

Posthumously awarded:

  1. • NASA Space Flight Medal
  2. • NASA Distinguished Service Medal
  3. • Defense Distinguished Service Medal (DDSM)
  4. • Congressional Space Medal of Honor


  1. On February 5, 2003, India's Prime Minister announced that the meteorological series of satellites, "METSAT", will be renamed as "KALPANA". The first satellite of the series, "METSAT-1", launched by India on September 12, 2002 will be now known as "KALPANA-1". "KALPANA-2" is expected to be launched by 2007.
  2. Asteroid 51826 Kalpanachawla is named for her.
  3. 74th Street in the "Little India" section of Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City has been renamed 74th Street Kalpana Chawla Way in her honor.
  4. Steve Morse from the band Deep Purple created a song called "Contact Lost" in memory of the Columbia tragedy along with her interest in the band. The song can be found on the album, Bananas (album).[2]
  5. The University of Texas at Arlington (where Chawla obtained a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering in 1984) opened a dormitory named in her honor, Kalpana Chawla Hall, in 2004.
  6. NASA has dedicated a super computer to Kalpana. -- [3] (ndtv)
  7. Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Illustrated Classics) has released a comic book biography of Kalpana Chawla's life.
  8. One of Florida Institute of Technology's student apartment complexes, Columbia Village Suites, has halls named after each of the astronauts, including Chawla.
  9. NASA Mars Exploration Rover mission has named seven peaks in a chain of hills, named the Columbia Hills, after each of the seven astronauts lost in the Columbia shuttle disaster, including Chawla hill after Kalpana Chawla.

Kalpana Chawla Memorial - Chawla Peak - Space Shuttle Columbia Inukshuk Memorials

The Chawla Peak Inukshuk Memorial was named after astronaut Kalpana Chawla. It was established in July, 2003 at the top of a rugged hill located inside the Haughton Crater basin. The site offers a magnificient panoramic view of the entire crater and overlooks Trinity Pond, a small body of water that has been investigated in detail in the course of the NASA HMP's astrobiology program.

The Chawla Peak Inukshuk was erected by NASA HMP Team members Pauline Akeeagok (Grise Fiord), Brian Glass (NASA ARC), Jeffrey Jones MD (NASA JSC), and Pascal Lee (NASA HMP PI).


Kalpana 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.She died as hero and a role model for many young women, especially in India and particularly those in her hometown of Karnal where her life serves to encourage young people to follow in her footsteps.

Her brother, Sanjay Chawla, remarked "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."

In a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee conveyed his sympathies to the American people. "We mourn with you in this moment of grief. Our hearts go out to the bright young men and women who were on that spacecraft. For us in India, we felt that since one of them was an Indian-born woman it adds a special poignancy to the tragedy."

"The world has seen with admiration the U.S. spacecraft program. We hope that in the days to come it will reach new heights," Vajpayee added.

"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."

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.

When the shuttle blew apart just 16 minutes away from landing, Chawla took her place in history, and left many behind to praise her spirit and her ambition. She once described her first trip in space by saying that, "In the pre-sleep period, when you're looking out the window, you're floating. The Nile River looks like a lifeline in the Sahara." She concluded by remarking that, "Earth is very beautiful. I wish everyone could see it."


Plans to honor Chawla in her native country were made shortly after her death, including an entire chapter devoted to her in the IT (Information Technology) at School textbook, even though space technology was not usually a part of the text, instructions were to be included on "do exercises" based on the life and activities of Chawla, according to Business Line. An article on Chawla's life was also to be included.

On February 6, 2003, Chawla was honored with a minute of silence in the Goa Assembly in India, as well.

In her memory, the Indian Prime Minister, Mr. A.B.Vajpayee renamed the weather satellite launched in 2002, Metstat as Kalpana-1. Deep Purple scripted and sang, Contact Lost as a tribute to her. These and many such small gestures round the world have kept her memory alive. But the real tribute, the youngsters can pay her, is to enliven the Kalpanas (imagination) in them.


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