On 1 February, 2003, seven NASA astronauts perished over Texas as Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 disintegrated while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
One of those killed in the disaster was Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-origin woman in space.
Here’s the story behind the girl from Karnal, whose indomitable courage took her to space.
Kalpana’s parents moved from West Punjab (now in Pakistan) to Karnal in Haryana during the partition. Her father, Banarasi Lal Chawla, worked various small jobs to support the family.
Born on 17 March, 1962, Kalpana was the youngest of four siblings and grew up in an environment that valued hard work. She had a curious nature and enjoyed exploring how things worked.
Since a young age, Kalpana was fascinated with stars and aeroplanes. Back then, Karnal was one of the few Indian towns with a flying club called Karnal Aviation Club.
As her house was just a few kilometres away from the club, she would often clamber up to the roof and wave her hand at the pilot if the plane flew low over the house.
In school, Kalpana was known as a student who loved science, was a complete tomboy who kept her hair short and rarely paid attention to fashion.
After her Class 10 board examinations, she was admitted to DAV College for her higher studies. After completing her Class 12 board exams, Kalpana decided to pursue her dream of an engineering career.
In Chandigarh, during counselling for the selection of various engineering courses, she chose aeronautical engineering, the only girl to do so.
She was determined to become a flight engineer, and nothing on earth could convince her to choose another stream.
In college, Kalpana put her heart and soul into her studies. As there was no girl’s hostel, she lived alone in a tiny room over a garage, cycling to college every day.
Once she surprised her professors and seniors by presenting a paper on ‘Time-Lapse in Space’ (a topic that dealt with Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity) at the college’s annual conference in her first year!
In 1982, Kalpana secured the third rank in her batch to become the first woman aeronautical engineer to graduate from her college.
A good academic record and active involvement in the PEC’s Aero and Astro Society assured Kalpana easy admission into the master’s course in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas in the USA.
She had a tough time persuading her family to allow her to go abroad for higher studies, and as a result, she joined the session several months later.
It was during this time that Kalpana met and fell in love with Jean Pierre Harrison, a flying instructor and an aviation author, whom she married in 1983.
It was from him that she learned how to fly a plane. Kalpana was licensed to fly single and multi-engine land aeroplanes and single-engine seaplanes, and was also a certified flight instructor.
In 1988, Kalpana completed her doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder and began working at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
Kalpana Chawla reported to the Johnson Space Center in March 1995 as an astronaut candidate in the 15th Group of Astronauts.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In November 1996, she was assigned as mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on the space shuttle STS-87 (19 November to 5 December, 1997).
On her initial mission, Kalpana journeyed 6.5 million miles during 252 orbits around Earth, spending 376 hours and 34 minutes in space.
She made history as the first Indian-origin woman in space. Within five years, NASA approved her for a second flight aboard Columbia.
In her last email to the students of Punjab Engineering College, Kalpana wrote, “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get onto it, and the perseverance to follow it.”