Rising Beyond Limits: The Inspiring Journey of Kalpana Chawla

by Khushi Srivastava
kalpana chawla

Kalpana Chawla, a US astronaut and engineer, was the first Indian woman to travel to space. She originally flew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997 as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator. Her second voyage was on STS-107, the last mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Chawla was one of seven crew members killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. occurred when the ship was destroyed during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Chawla was posthumously given the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and various streets, universities, and institutions are named after her. She is revered as a national hero in India.

Kalpana Chawla

Early Life 

Kalpana Chawla was born on March 17, 1962, in Karnal, India, to parents Banarasi Lal Chawla and Sanjyothi Chawla, the youngest of four siblings. Chawla had no formal name till she attended school. Her parents called her Montu, but Chawla chose her own name from a list when she began school. The name Kalpana translates to “idea” or “imagination.” Her entire name is pronounced CULL-pah-na CHAU-la, but she was generally known by the moniker K.C.

Chawla became interested in flying when she was just three years old. She spent days with her father attending her local flying club, and she expressed an interest in aviation while in school.

Chawla formerly attended Tagore Baal Niketan Senior Secondary School in Karnal, India.

Chawla holds a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College. When she chose the course, teachers tried to discourage her because there were few options for women in India to pursue this professional route. However, Chawla insisted that this was the topic for her.

Chawla traveled to the United States in the 1980s after completing her engineering degree in India, where she became a naturalized citizen and continued her education. She received her master’s degree from the University of Texas and a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado in 1988.

Astronaut Chawla

In 1994, Chawla was chosen as an astronaut candidate. After a year of training, she was assigned as a crew representative for the Astronaut Office’s EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches, where she worked on Robotic Situational Awareness Displays and evaluated space shuttle software.

Chawla was interested about offering science education opportunities for young girls in India, and during her tenure as an astronaut, NASA invited her secondary school to participate in their Summer Space Experience Program. Beginning in 1998, the school sent two girls to the Foundation for International Space Education’s United Space School in Houston, and Chawla would host them for an Indian dinner at her home.

Chawla’s maiden voyage was in November 1997, onboard the space shuttle Columbia on STS-87. The shuttle orbited the Earth 252 times in just over two weeks. Chawla was a mission specialist and the flight’s primary robotic arm operator; the other astronauts were Kevin Kregel, Steven Linsey, Winston Scott, Takao Doi, and Leonid Kadenyuk.

The shuttle carried out a number of experiments, including ones on plant reproduction in microgravity and material behavior in space.

In addition, Chawla used the robotic arm to install SPARTAN 201, a satellite designed to explore the sun’s outer layer, known as the corona. However, NASA said that the satellite malfunctioned and was unable to regulate its location after release. Two additional astronauts on the trip had to make a spacewalk to recapture the satellite, and the instrument never conducted any study.

Chawla stated after her first trip, “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 entire solar system.”

The Columbia Tragedy

Chawla was chosen for her second space mission, STS-107, as a mission specialist in 2000. The mission was delayed numerous times before finally taking off on January 16, 2003.

Kalpana was the flight engineer for the Columbia space shuttle in 2003. She was a highly qualified aerospace engineer. A seasoned astronaut who had participated in two prior shuttle missions. During her final flight, she was in charge of monitoring the health of the shuttle and its systems during launch, climb, and reentry. She also monitored the operation of robotic arm experiments and collaborated with Mission Regulate to regulate them as needed.

NASA reported that the STS-107 crew conducted over 80 experiments during their 16-day journey, including testing water recycling technology, studying insect and fish responses, and studying the sun. The Spacehab research module, a pressurized chamber, focused on biological and health sciences.

Between her two missions, Chawla spent 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space.

On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle, intended to land at Kennedy Space Center, experienced hot gas damage due to a broken insulation piece. Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman to space, spent 30 days and 54 minutes.

 The Columbia shuttle depressurized, killing the crew, and the shuttle broke up over Texas and Louisiana. After the disaster, scientists named seven asteroids after each crew member as a “celestial memorial” and named seven hills on Mars for the lost crew. In October 2020, a commercial cargo spacecraft named after Chawla launched to the International Space Station (ISS). Space.com offers a biography of Chawla, updates on space-related topics, and a free vehicular combat game called War Thunder.

Legacy of Kalpana Chawla

Shortly after the Columbia catastrophe, scientists named seven asteroids after each crewmember as a “celestial memorial.” To commemorate the first anniversary of the catastrophe, NASA named seven hills on Mars after the lost astronauts.

In 2010, the University of Texas unveiled a Kalpana Chawla memorial in the Arlington College of Engineering. At the time of its introduction, the display featured a flying suit, photographs, and information about Chawla’s life. And a banner flowed over the Johnson Space Center during a memorial for the Columbia crew.

In October 2020, a commercial cargo spacecraft dubbed Chawla was launched to the International Space Station (ISS). Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus capsule was dubbed the S.S. Kalpana Chawla, as the company’s policy is to dedicate their Cygnus capsules to someone who played a critical role in human spaceflight.

Chawla was selected in honor of her prominent place in history as the first woman of Indian descent to go to space.

Reference : https://www.space.com/17056-kalpana-chawla-biography.html


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