The Story of Kalpana Chawla: An Inspiration for Your Child

Does your child want to become an astronaut? Then Kalpana Chawla’s story will inspire her. This article narrates the life history of Kalpana Chawla charting out her path to NASA.

By Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj  • 9 min read

The Story of Kalpana Chawla: An Inspiration for Your Child
Kalpana Chawla - Astronaut

Does your child gaze at twinkling stars and wonder what they are? Do her little fingers yearn to, one day, touch the fluffy clouds? Then, let the story of Kalpana Chawla inspire your child. For, the biography of this Indian-American astronaut who is also the first woman of Indian origin to conquer space, deserves to be written in gold. From being born in a small town in India to reach where no Indian woman has gone before followed by her tragic demise, the story of this first female Indian astronaut is truly worth a biopic.

As a parent, information about her life history, the career-path she followed and her flight to success will help kindle your child’s interest in space. Here's an insight into the life of this great astronaut who did India proud.

Kalpana Chawla – The first female Indian astronaut

Kalpana’s parents must have had great foresight when they named their child Kalpana, meaning ‘imagination’. For, in Kalpana's own words, she was led by, “A strong desire to travel beyond the blue yonder, to fly into the heavens and touch the stars someday …”

Kalpana Chawla – Early life

Born in the sleepy little town of Karnal, Haryana, Kalpana Chawla was known for her brilliant academic record throughout schooling. She also took part in a whole range of extra-curricular activities - from athletics to dance. While others of her age were playing with dolls, Kalpana loved to sketch and paint airplanes. She made aero-models, and models of the universe and constellations, for science and geography projects in school. Her academic inclinations and interests in aeromodelling laid the foundation for a great journey to outer space that eventually rewrote many records.

Kalpana passed out of Tagore Bal Niketan School, Karnal in 1976. It is believed that at DAV College for Women, where she pursued her pre-university, a ‘sets’ theory session got her even more motivated to become an astronaut.

Kalpana Chawla - Education

A few years later, Kalpana graduated in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College. It should be noted that she was the only girl in the Aeronautics branch of her college. She was also the secretary of the Aero-Astro club of her college. During her very first year there, she presented a paper on time lapse in space. Shortly after completing her engineering degree, Kalpana was offered a job at HAL, Bangalore, but she turned it down as she was committed to taking her space ambitions further.

In pursuit of her dream, Kalpana applied for Graduate Aeronautical Engineering programmes in three very prominent institutions in the USA. Although she got selected in all three institutions, Kalpana opted for the MS degree in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas. This was followed by another MS degree in Mechanical Engineering, and a Doctorate in Philosophy in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Colorado in 1988.

Kalpana began working at NASA's Ames Research Center the same year. Meanwhile, inspired by JRD Tata, she took to flying and obtained her commercial pilot licenses for single and multi-engine airplanes, seaplanes and gliders.

Kalpana Chawla – At NASA

In 1994, the much-awaited dream was about to come true with NASA selecting Kalpana for astronaut training. She had to undergo evaluation for one year – an arduous process which required immense levels of fitness. Kalpana Chawla’s determination saw her through this rigorous training programme. In 1996, she was assigned the role of a mission specialist on STS-87 Columbia. In 1997, she finally realised her dream by being a part of a six-astronaut crew aboard the STS-87. Of her first trip to space, Kalpana said that sunrises and sunsets defined her experience in outer space. She yearned for a second chance and that came in 2003, when she was a part of the crew of STS-107, on a 16-day mission dedicated to science and research. On being selected again, she had then said, “Doing it again is like living a dream – a good dream – once again.” But, sadly, this time she went off on an eternal voyage to outer space, never to return.

On February 1, 2003, when the shuttle was making its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, tragedy struck. Sixteen minutes prior to the scheduled landing, the space shuttle disintegrated, thus ending a great space chapter.

Kalpana will be remembered not only for her spectacular feats, but also for her message to children.

"Material interests are not the only guiding light. It is something you'd enjoy doing in the long run. Take the time to figure out how to get there. The quickest way may not necessarily be the best. The journey matters as much as the goal. Listen to the sounds of Nature. Wishing you the best on your trek towards your dreams. Take good care of our fragile planet,” she had said.

In fact, Kalpana Chawla was remembered as ‘a great friend and mentor’ by another American astronaut of Indian origin, Sunita Williams. This famous woman astronaut took off on the space shuttle ‘Discovery’ to the ISS (International Space Station) on 9 December 2006 and set two records for women in space – being more than 29 hours outside the spacecraft on four spacewalks and spending more than 195 days in space. The latter record was broken by the Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti in 2015. On 15 July 2012, Sunita Williams set off on her second trip to space on Soyuz TMA-05M and spent nearly 127 days in space.

Truly inspirational – the achievements of Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams! Let your child too dream big and soar high!

About the author:

Written by Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj, PhD (Eng & Edu) on 4 August 2017; updated on 6 September 2019

The author is an educationist, language specialist and writer. In a career spanning over two decades, she has taught from preschool to B-School and trained teachers, master trainers and software professionals. She is also a former member of curriculum and syllabus development committees (Govt of Tamil Nadu). Her passion for the written word matches her enthusiasm for entertaining little kids by breaking out into nursery rhymes.

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