This essay is part of the #IndianWomenInHistory campaign for Women’s History Month to remember the untold legacies of women who shaped India, especially India’s various feminist movements. Each day one Indian woman is profiled for the whole of March 2017. 

14 years have passed since the unexpected death of Kalpana Chawla shook the nation and the world. Yet, the memory of the icon that she was is still fresh in our minds. Being the first professional Indian astronaut in space, she became a household name in India when she embarked on a much anticipated journey to space aboard the Columbia in 2003, with six other crew members. The Columbia met with a tragic accident on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere merely 16 minutes away from home.

I was only 7 when this happened, but I remember my entire family watching the landing on live television and I can still recall the shock and the grief that followed everyone around for days.

”The path from dreams to reality does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get onto it and perseverance to follow it.” I have come across this quote by Kalpana Chawla on various motivational posters numerous times and always dismissed it as unreliable internet mumbo jumbo. This was until I read up on her life to discover what an icon she was and the kind of odds she had to fight to simply do what she wanted to do. The path she took and the achievements that followed were by no means conventional or easy, especially for someone with her background. It is her remarkable courage and ambition that got her there and in the process inspired an entire generation to do the same. In this article, we take a look at the life and times of this trailblazer, whose story can still work its magic by inspiring people to pursue their dreams, no matter what the circumstances are.

Childhood

Kalpana Chawla was born in Karnal, Haryana to Sanjyoti Chawla and Banarasi Lal Chawla on 17th March 1961. She was the youngest of four siblings and was lovingly called ‘Montu’ by members of her family. Her ancestors being refugees of the partition, the family gained financial stability very gradually after trying their hand in different kinds of businesses including the sale of clothes. On entering the tyre manufacturing business they finally stood on their own feet.

In her later years, she admitted to realising the importance of hard work from watching her father build a successful career from practically nothing. She joined Tagore Bal Niketan in Karnal, at a time when attending school was a rarity for girls. In most classrooms female students made up barely 10% of the total class strength. Her teachers noted that as a toddler she always preferred to craft or sketch airplanes during art class.

Long before she decided to become an astronaut, she remembers being mesmerised by the sky, the stars and what lay beyond while lying on the cot in the courtyard of her house on summer nights. In an interview with India Today she said, ‘The sense of awe for the heavens started here’.

When her love for flying became apparent, her father took her for a ride at the flying club in their town, one of the twelve flying clubs in India at the time. It is here that a young Kalpana got her first taste of flying and from there her passion for it only grew stronger.

Early Education and Challenges

Chawla did her Bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering from Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh. She was in class 10 when she decided she wanted to be an engineer. On informing her father about the career she wanted to pursue, he suggested she consider a more respectable profession like medicine or teaching and not something that was conventionally meant for boys. Her response to this was simply, “This is what I really want to do”. While joining college, her professors also encouraged her to take a more ‘lady-like’ field like electronics instead of aerospace engineering. Yet, her argument remained the same – “This is what I really want to do”. Getting admitted to a college in Chandigarh also meant moving out her hometown, another milestone in an environment where women were expected to get married and ‘settle down’.

Migrating to the US

At the time, finding no scope in India for further studies in the field, ambition took over and in 1982 she went to the USA to pursue a Master’s in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas, Arlington. Subsequently, she received her Doctorate from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1988. Given her love for airplanes and flying, the goal had always been to work on designing and building high-tech planes. Wanting to become an astronaut and going to space was a dream that developed much later.

Joining NASA

After receiving her doctorate, she got a job at NASA’s Ames Research Centre, California (ARC). The ARC focuses on astrobiology, supercomputing, robotic lunar explorations etc, all of which help in NASA’s space missions. Kalpana’s specific area of research at the centre was computational fluid dynamics (CFD) where she tried to devise methods to accurately predict the pattern of air flow around an aircraft. In 1990, she was naturalized as a citizen of the US. The Challenger disaster of 1986  in which the space shuttle broke apart 73 seconds after its launch killing all the crew members wasn’t too long ago, yet the brave Kalpana, who was never afraid of a new challenge, applied to NASA’s space programme. In 1994 she was selected to be part of their upcoming 16-day microgravity mission. The STS-87 mission aboard the space shuttle Columbia began on November 19th, 1997 with a 6-member crew.

Her duty on the mission was to operate a robotic arm to deploy the Spartan satellite, used to study the sun in collaboration with SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) a NASA/ European spacecraft. Being a mission specialist for the journey, she was also responsible for heading several microgravity experiments while on board the spacecraft. The STS-87 orbited the Earth 252 times covering 6.5 million miles in 376 hours and 34 minutes.

On her return, she talked of being blown away by the beauty and the vastness of space. “When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system.”

Second Time in Space: The Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

Her second mission to space was as a mission specialist on the STS-107 Columbia which departed on January 16th, 2003. The seven-member crew managed to conduct 80 micro-gravity research experiments on their 16-day mission clocking in 24 work hours a day by working in shifts. At the end of the mission, the space shuttle began its journey back home to the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. During the launch, a piece of the shield that protects the spacecraft from heating upon re-entry came off the wing of the shuttle. On 1st February 2003 on its way back, the heat generated while passing the Earth’s atmosphere destabilised the shuttle and caused it to break up into several parts. All crew members including Kalpana Chawla were killed.

At the memorial service for the Columbian Astronauts, the then President of the United States, George W Bush tried to put in words what her loss meant for both nations:

None of our astronauts travelled a longer path to space than Kalpana Chawla. She left India as a student, but she would see the nation of her birth, all of it, from hundreds of miles above. When the sad news reached her home town, an administrator at her high school recalled, ‘She always said she wanted to reach the stars. She went there, and beyond.’ Kalpana’s native country mourns her today, and so does her adopted land.”

With her two missions, Kalpana Chawla travelled a total of 30 days, 14 hours and 54 minutes in space.

Honours and Recognition

She was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

Given the scale of her achievements, the kind of recognition and honour she has received since her death is no surprise. From asteroids to hills on Mars to satellites, several entities in space have been named after her. Scores of awards and scholarships have been constituted in her honour. In pop culture too, her memory lives on through the songs and the science fiction written for her and her deceased crew mates.

What lies beyond this life of ours on Earth has always been one of humanity’s biggest missions. In taking us closer to that dream, Kalpana Chawla along with her crew mates died a hero.

Kalpana Chawla’s life trajectory knows no parallel, which is probably what makes her this century’s biggest trailblazer for Indian women in science. She is someone who broke the glass ceiling and paved the way for so many others to follow, someone who is a pioneer in every sense of the word.

References

1) NASA Biographical Data : Kalpana Chawla 
2) Kalpana Chawla : A Life by Anil Padmanabhan
3) The Edge of Time : The Authoritative Biography of Kalpana Chawla by Jean-Pierre Harrison

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