FEMLEADS STORY - Kalpana Chawla

FEMLEADS STORY - Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla’s, who happens to be the one India-born woman who gave millions of other girls the courage to dare to dream of becoming an astronaut. She was an Indian-American astronaut and the first Indian woman in space. She first flew on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997 as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator. In 2003, she was one of the seven crew members killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. She often went by the nickname K.C. Her story is not of ‘rags-to-riches’ or of ‘poor-family-girl-overcoming-obstacles’ but it still is one of the most inspiring stories of ‘daring-to-dream’ and ‘working-hard-to-fulfil-your-dreams’. It definitely is a story of grit and determination and I am sure it inspires many women around the world just as much as it inspires me.

She was born in Karnal, Haryana, India. Her interest in flight was inspired by J. R. D. Tata, India's first pilot. She studied aeronautical engineering at the Punjab Engineering College in 1982 where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree. Thereafter she moved to the United States to obtain a Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering from University of Texas (1984). Dr. Chawla earned a doctorate in aerospace engineering from University of Colorado in 1988. That same year she began working for NASA's Ames Research Center. Kalpana Chawla became a naturalized USA citizen, and married Jean-Pierre Harrison, a freelance flying instructor. She held a certified flight instructor's license with airplane and glider ratings, and has commercial pilot's licenses for single and multiengine land and seaplanes. She also enjoyed flying, hiking, back-packing, and reading. On a personal level, she was a strict vegetarian . On her mission, she carried a white silk banner as part of a worldwide campaign to honor teachers, as well as nearly two dozen CDs, including ones by Abida Parveen, Yehudi Menuhin, Ravi Shankar, and Deep Purple.

Dr. Chawla entered NASA's astronaut program in 1994 and was selected for flight in 1996. Her first mission to space began on November 19, 1997 as part of the 6 astronaut crew that flew the Space Shuttle Columbia Flight STS-87. She was the first Indian-born woman in space, as well as the first Indian-American in space. (She was the second person from India to fly into space, after cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma who went into space in 1984 in a Soviet spacecraft.)

On her first mission, she travelled over 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of the earth, logging more than 375 hours in space. During STS-87, she was responsible for deploying the Spartan Satellite which malfunctioned forcing two other astronauts to go on a spacewalk to capture the solar satellite. A five-month NASA investigation blamed the error on the flight crew and ground control. She was fully exonerated (although this did not stop some reporters from making direspectful comments about her involvement in the mishap in the days after her death in the explosion of the final Columbia mission). After being selected for a second flight, she lived at the Lyndon B Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas , undergoing extensive training. Her mission got delayed in July 2002 when NASA engineers identified three cracks on the shuttle's second engine's liquid hydrogen flow liner. Over six months later the shuttle was cleared and she returned to space in the ill-fated STS-107 mission. On the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, the space shuttle returned to Earth, intending to land at Kennedy Space Center. At launch, a briefcase-sized piece of insulation had broken off and damaged the thermal protection system of the shuttle's wing, the shield that protects it from heat during re-entry. As the shuttle passed through the atmosphere, hot gas streaming into the wing caused it to break up. The unstable craft rolled and bucked, pitching the astronauts about. Less than a minute passed before the ship depressurized, killing the crew. The shuttle broke up over Texas and Louisiana before plunging into the ground. The accident was the second major disaster for the space shuttle program, following the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger. Over the course of her two missions, Chawla logged 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space. After her first launch, she said, "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."

Shortly after her last mission, India renamed its first weather satellite 'Kalpana-1' in her honour. She was also posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. In fact, an Asteroid, namely 51826 Kalpanachawla, is one of seven named after the Columbia's crew. There are many awards, scholarships, streets, university halls, etc. named after her. She died a hero and a role-model for many young women, particularly those in her hometown of Karnal where she periodically returned to encourage young girls to follow in her footsteps.

Source: Wikipedia and Google search.

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