It is not often that someone whom the newspapers and media give coverage on the front page loses her life within less than a month. It is also not often that an explosion 200,000 ft. above the ground in Texas, U.S. moved so many in India. The extent of universalization was brought here to us in the most tragic way possible when a gutsy woman from a small town in Karnal (Haryana) died along with six astronauts on a seemingly routine space flight.
Suddenly the enormous achievement of Kalpna Chawla, a woman who had stayed 760hours in space and circled the globe 252 times dawned upon her native country. Our 24- hour news network ‘Aaj Tak’ announced that those who wished to pay homage to her could send their message to the channel for broadcast. In just 12- hours we were inundated with one lakhs tributes said Aaj Tak Channel. But her fame is not posthumous. This petite, gritty 41 year old girl, who made America her adopted home, broke all barriers to enter a unique violation and be counted as a member of the world’s most selected club of pioneers.
In 1997, after her first space flight in an interviews editor, she said “when you are up there, you feel you are not from any particular piece of land but a resident of the Milky Way.” In fact, her journey into space had given her an almost yogic dimension.”
For scores of admirers in India a number swollen by the tragedy of her death, her life was an epigraph of small town, middle class success. Having slept under a canopy of stars in Karnal, a sleepy town in Haryana, Tagore Bal Niketan School’s most famous student became the first student to study aero-nautical engineering. An avid maker of aero-models as a child, she became second Indian after Rakesh Sharma to cross the final frontier.
She was a heroine who as a child, cut her own hair and had visits to Karnals flying club. In a nation used to resting on its laurels, she wanted to go to Mars. In the intermittent tradition of her aviation heroes she was our trailblazer. In a world where oceans have been plumed and mountain napped, she retained a childlike awe at the wonder of our planet. Carrying our aspirations on her slender shoulders she touched Indians soul. A naturalised American she was the space Yogini who balanced mental agility with physical endurance.
Every time a TV network flashed the image of Chawla proudly introducing herself at a National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA) briefing “I am from Karnal India.” She said some one’s heart broke somewhere. Those who had taught her or had been friends with her struggled to articulate her iconic status.
For all her single-minded determination to be astronaut Chawla had a rich inner life. Anyone whose 20-CD collection aboard Columbia included Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Ravi Shankar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan clearly had a world outside the space station whether it was the Bharartnatyam she learnt between 1992 and 1994 at the San Jose based Abhinaiya Dance company just before she got a call from NASA to come to the space programme out of 2,962 applicants or the flying lessons she took at the university of Taxes Chawla was the antithesis of the dollar obsessed stereotypical foreign generation.
After her master’s degree Chawla moved to Colorado University to do her doctorate, which she completed in 1988. Oddly she is the second Colorado universally Almamater to perish on a space mission. Her career took off when she started out at the NASA Ames Research Center. In 1993 she joined overset Methods Loo Altos, California, as Vice President. In December 1993 NASA accepted her application and by March 1995, Chawla reported to the Johnson Space center as a candidate in the 15th Group of Astronauts. Her path to the stars was paved with increasinglyShe was always willing to try anything new. When she accompanied her husband she was also thoughtful. She loved to fly. She earned her pilots license when she lived in the Bay Area of San Francisco between 1988 and 1994, later taking up aerobatic flying.
complex technical requirements that are difficult for any layperson to comprehend. Space training is an arduous process where expressing gravity’s pull can increase your pulse rate from 72 to 102 within seconds where every movement can be a discovery of pain. It is usually restructured to an elite band of trained personnel requiring as it does immense levels of fitness. .
In her 1997interview Chawla said, when she is in space. “It is almost as if everything is in fast forward movement. Then the moon races away from us and is lost in the glow of the earth’s curvature. Almost like Kalpna herself.For India American community especially Generation Next, she has become a beacon. As Priyank Taiswal, a Hauston, based geophysicist puts it “She was from our kind of background. Her rise in the mainstream is something special for us. It is a feeling echoed among young people in India since 1997. NASA has been hosting two students from her Almamater every year, Sanpreet Kaur, a class XI student who was part of last year’s batch at the Johnsons space center says: Kalpna didi would always exhort us to aim for the space.