Kalpana Chawla – The first Indian woman to go into space
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 …”
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 aero-modelling 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.
Life in college
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 of 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.
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. Truly inspirational!