Daughter of Space: Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla (K.C to her friends) is one among the very few icons of this century, who remained faithful to her name. We remember her for her courage, valour and the sacrifice she has made, making her country proud. She was fond of moon and stars and had become a star herself, through her courage.


Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla (Image Credit: NASA)

Kalpana Chawla was an astronaut and a space mission specialist. She was the first Indian American astronaut and first Indian woman in space. From the beginning of her life, she aimed at the sky and felt the very presence of stars around her and made up her mind to reach there someday, somehow.


She was simple, straight forward and was a vegetarian. Unmoved by the Indian tradition of a lady aiming her life at the kitchen, she was desperate about making her moves to reach space and unravel the mysteries of space and life beyond earth.


Early life:

Born in Karnal, Haryana, India on July 1, 1961 to Sanjyothi, and Banarasi Lal Chawla, Kalpana was the youngest of four siblings, after 2 sisters, Sunita and Dipa, and a brother, Sanjay.


From the words of her mother, Kalpana was “unique” from the fellow children, she cut her own hair, never wore iron clothes and learned karate. Her interest was found in the early childhood, when her teacher found her doing a marvelous job of making a project on environment depicting colourful stars and sky.


Kalpana Chawla Childhood

Kalpana Chawla in her early years

Mars interested her all along her life. At the age of 11, she drew her attention towards Mars and was astonished by the photographs of Viking Landers’ Mars mission, which later helped her expand her knowledge about the planet.


She always enjoyed her work, be it imagining about stepping on mars or a class room lecture. She always wished the youth around her to figure out their journey before destiny does and plan their travel accordingly. She insisted the emphasis should be laid on the journey and the goal equally.


Great people always show the emotions they carry. Kalpana Chawla, remembered every single individual of her life from a kinder garden teacher to a close friend, killed in an accident. This can be cited from the fact that, during her mission, she hesitantly spoke about Daisy Chawla, who got killed in a road accident. She held her nerve to keep in contact with all the teachers, friends and the fellow beings from child hood, who made her life.


Inspiration and the beginning of the Space Journey:

Women seldom get the support from their family in India, and she was lucky enough to get the support from her family and her friends all along her career. She grew up along with her brother Sanjay, both sharing their interests on flying. Her interest in flight was inspired by JRD Tata, first Indian pilot. She chose to sketch planes than Barbie dolls, different from the fellow girls at her age does.


Her father, Banarsi Lal Chawla, was then an owner of a manufacturing shop and then expanded his business to become a leading industrialist of Karnal and owned a tire factory later, while her mother, Sanyogita chawla, was a housewife and expected a boy as her last child. Kalpana made no difference though. The family were refugees from Pakistan, settled in Karnal after partition in 1947. Everyone in her family shares unique interests in various fields. Her elder sister, Sunita Chaudhary and her sister in law are bird watchers in Delhi and her brother is a sound businessman.


Kalpana was open-minded in her thoughts and unique in her attitude. She did not hesitate to marry French American, Pierre Harrison, a flying instructor in 1983.


She focused on the education and her career in the initial part of her life and later took admission in DAV College for women for pre university lessons, and later admitted in Dayal Singh College to pursue engineering from the Punjab engineering college, Chandigarh.


Personal character:

She loved music and reading. Her husband, Jean-Pierre Harrison who himself was a freelance flying instructor fueled 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.


NASA career:

In 1984 she completed her M. Sc. in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas, and in 1994 was selected by NASA, the beginning of her career has taken place as per her interests.


Kalpana Chawla’s maiden space mission was unforgettable for all the experiences she had carried along her life. Her first mission was to fly in space shuttle, Columbia flight STS-87, which began in the later part of 1997. Five other members accompanied her as a crew on board. She shared many emotional moments with them, after all that was the beginning of her dream coming true. She has to monitor several functions of the planet, including zero gravitational activities and, with her discipline, she served her part and despite initial malfunctions of payload bay, her mission was a huge success and suddenly she became a celebrity. But time has the last laugh though.

Kalpana Chawla in the space shuttle simulator

Kalpana Chawla in the space shuttle simulator (Image credit: NASA)

She travelled 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of earth, logging more than 375 hours in space, during that mission.


Last mission:

After completing her brave acts in the space in her first mission, she was assigned to work in technical domains of NASA and she excelled in those fields too.


Normally, when an astronaut once has entered into space does not dare to enter again as, he is aware of the hazards involved. But Kalpana was different in this case and she often said she wanted to be a part of the first team landing on Mars and preferred to die in space among the stars and she experienced that dream coming true later.


Space shuttle STS-107 was purely a scientific mission, and has an inclusive laboratory called “space hab” approximately, 7meters long, 5 meters wide and 4 meters high.


This mission was delayed several months for checking and rechecking of the space shuttle, regarding the issues with the second engine in July 2002. Over six months later the shuttle was cleared and sent into the space to make history.


The crew of STS-107

The crew of STS-107 (Image credit: NASA)

Finally, the space shuttle Columbia disaster took place on February 1, 2003 before the completion of the 28th mission. The space shuttle disintegrated into pieces over Texas and Lousiana before re-entering into the earth’s atmosphere, ending the life of seven crew members, while NASA anticipated the damage when the space shuttle was in the space and later abandoned their investigation, as nothing can be done to prevent such a thing to happen. It’s unfortunate to say that our own earth killed its child with the atmospheric pressure, exerting on the craft, she was travelling and the malfunction of the ship, somehow doomed the astronauts. Sometimes, life turns into a danger when challenged against our own existence and that’s what happened in her case, she tried to fight against the nature, striving for existence, but in vain.


There ends the life of a great woman on her journey to unravel the mysteries of space and the way she dreamt, she died among the stars and stayed among them.


In her brother Sanjay Chawla’s words, “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”.


She stays in our hearts and the scholarships, awards and medals of honours in the name of her make her name proud for the very existence of her life.


As a mark of tribute, the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee named India’s first meteorological satellite as kalpana-1, in her memory.


In the midst of expanding the human knowledge, she sacrificed her precious life and became an inspiration for millions of people, ready to continue her journey from where she has left us. Let’s not make her sacrifice go in vain, but make her the reason for all the knowledge we are going to unravel, following her footsteps, for the rest of our lives.