“I could then see my reflection in the window and in the retina of my eyes the whole Earth and the sky could be seen reflected … So, I called all the crew members one by one and they all saw it and everybody said, “Oh ..Wow”.

Columbia Astronaut Kalpana Chawla   on seeing her reflection in the Orbiter’s overhead window.

Born in Karnal, India, Kalpana Chawla enjoyed flying, hiking, back-packing, and reading. She held Certificated Flight Instructor’s license with airplane and glider ratings, Commercial Pilot’s licenses for single and multi-engine land and seaplanes, gliders and instrument rating for airplanes. She enjoyed flying aerobatics and tail-wheel airplanes.

She earned her Graduation from Tagore School, Karnal, India, in 1976, Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College, India, in 1982, Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering from University of Texas, in 1984 and Doctorate of Philosophy in aerospace engineering from University of Colorado, in 1988.

In 1988, Kalpana Chawla started work at NASA Ames Research Centre 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 Ine, 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.

Selected by NASA in December, 1994, Kalpana Chawla reported to the Johnson Space Centre in March, 1995, as an astronaut candidate in the 15th Group of Astronauts. 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.

In November, 1996, Kalpana Chawla was assigned as mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on STS-87 (19th November to 5th December, 1997). STS-87 was the fourth US 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 (space walk) 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 travelled 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. She was assigned to the crew of STS-107 scheduled for launch in 2003.

The STS-107 Columbia (16th January to 1st February, 2003), a 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. The STS-107 mission ended abruptly on 1st February, 2003 when Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew perished during entry, 16 minutes prior to schedule landing.

Karnal residents and hundreds of millions of Indians had been elated at Chawla. The 40 year old became the first Indian woman to enter space in 1997, when she was part of the Columbia Mission that orbited the Earth.

Though deeply saddened, Chawla’s brother, Sanjay, tried to be philosophical about her death, “When you’re involved in such a profession, you need to be ready for this kind of news,” he told CNN’s Satinder Bindra. “I was just telling my friends that if you’re in the army or air force or any such field, you should be ready to receive such news.”

“When this can happen to others, it can also happen to you. This time, such a tragedy has befallen our family, but our relatives and friends and the people of Karnal are all sharing our grief,” the brother added.

In India, which had launched satellites for years and was preparing for a Moon orbit this decade, Chawla was a new kind of heroine.

Prior to her departure on Columbia for what was her second trip to space, she told reporters that her inspiration to take up flying was JRD Tata who flew the first mail flights in India.

She told the Press Trust of India on 16th January “What JRD Tata had done during those years was very intriguing and definitely captivated my imagination.”

Following her first space flight, in 1997, she had told News India-Times of seeing India’s Himalayan Mountains.

“The Ganges Valley looked majestic, mind boggling,” she said.

Chawla said that as the shuttle repeatedly passed over India, especially New Delhi, she had pointed it out to the other crew members and said, “I lived near there.”

Front pages of Indian newspapers carried pictures of Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman in space, to celebrate her expected return to Earth on the US space shuttle Columbia. But the return never happened as the shuttle broke apart more than 200000 feet above Central Texas minutes before it was to land in Florida, killing all seven crew members.

Instead of a celebration, a pall of sadness descended on India as much of the country watched with horror the video footage showing the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia.

In a letter to US 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 India-born woman it adds a special poignancy to the tragedy.”

“The world has seen with admiration the US spacecraft programme. We hope that in the days to come it will reach new heights,” Vajpayee added. Long live the memories of Kalpana an inspiring legend.