“The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.”
Chawla’s early fascination for aerospace sparked her journey to become an astronaut for NASA; as devastating her tale was, Chawla left a huge mark on the universe when she became the first Indian woman in space.
Born in Karnal, Haryana, India, on March 17, 1962, she was the daughter of Syongita (Chai-ji) and Banarsi lal (Pa-ji) Chawla. She was also the youngest of four kids-she had one brother named Sanjay and two sisters named Deepa and Sunita.
Chawla was primarily known as “Montu” as she did not have a formal name. She was only 3 years old when she selected the name we all know today: “Kalpana,” which means “imagination.” She picked this from a list of names her aunt had told her school principal about.
“It was here [in Karnal] that she lay on the roof and gazed into the night sky, pondering the mysteries of the constellations above.
In 1976, she graduated from Tagore Baal Niketan Senior Secondary School in Karnal, India. With her mind set on an aerospace career, Chawla went on to complete multiple degrees. In 1982, she graduated from Punjab Engineering College with a Bachelor of Science in aeronautical engineering and moved to US.
“I was interested in aerospace and flying, and the U.S. is really the best place in the world for flying,” Chawla said.
Chawla married Jean-Pierre Harrison, an aviation author and flying instructor in December 1983.
Kalpana Chawla and her husband, Jean-Pierre Harrison
A year later in 1984, she graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington with a Master of Science in aerospace engineering and got her second Master’s degree two years later in 1986. In 1988, she graduated from the University of Colorado with a Doctorate of Philosophy in aerospace engineering.
NASA Ames Research Center hired her, where she completed research on the “simulation of complex air flows encountered around aircraft such as the Harrier in ‘ground-effect’” and continued to work in the “area of powered-lift computational fluid dynamics” that same year; other research she was involved in was the “mapping of flow solvers to parallel computers, and testing of these solvers by carrying out powered lift computations.”
In 1991, Chawla got her US Citizenship.
As the Vice President and Research Scientist of Overset Methods Inc., Chawla had to establish and execute techniques for successful “aerodynamic optimization” and work on the “specialization of moving multiple body problems” with a research team she formed in 1993 at Los Altos, California.
In March 1995, Chawla became an astronaut candidate in the 15th Group of Astronauts at the Johnson Space Center after being chosen by NASA in December 1994.
She contributed to the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory’s space shuttle control software testing and the Robotic Situational Awareness Displays when she became a crew representative for the Astronaut Office EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches.
“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,” Chawla said.
She became the primary robotic arm operator and mission specialist on STS-87 in November 1996.
From November 19 to December 5, 1997, Chawla flew on the STS-87 Columbia, which centered on “observations of the Sun’s outer atmospheric layers” and experiments created for the purpose of understanding how the “various physical processes” were impacted by “weightless environment of space”; this was also the “fourth US Microgravity Payload flight” that traveled for a total of 376 hours and 34 minutes, covered 6.5 million miles and made 252 orbits of the Earth.
“The first view of the Earth is magical. It is a very overpowering realization that the Earth is so small. It affected me. I could not get over the notion that in such a small planet, with such a small ribbon of life, so much goes on. It is as if the whole place is sacred,” Chawla said.
She went on to become a “crew representative for shuttle and station flight crew equipment…and a lead for Astronaut Offices Crew Systems and Habitability” two years later, in January 1998.
From January 16 to February 1, 2003, Chawla and six other crewmembers flew on the STS-107 Columbia, which was considered a “dedicated science and research mission.” Eighty experiments were conducted by the crew, who (in addition to Chawla) also included co-pilot William McCool, Dr. David Brown, Ilan Ramon (who also made history by being the first Israeli in space), Dr. Laurel Clark, commander Rick Husband and payload commander Michael Anderson.
When entering the earth’s atmosphere in the southern part of United States (in Texas), the Space Shuttle Columbia perished 16 minutes before the estimated landing time on February 1, 2003, leaving no survivors. All seven were killed, leaving behind a legacy that would be remembered for years to come.
Thirty days, 14 hours and 54 minutes was her total time in space on both the STS-87 and STS-107.
The NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the NASA Space Flight Medal and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor were some of the awards Chawla won posthumously.
Several landmarks, places and objects now adorn her name proudly. This includes a medical hospital and college in Karnal established by the Haryana government as a tribute to her; the asteroid 51826 Kalpanachawla, which “circles between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter”; a Mars hill; a Kurukshetra planetarium; “Kalpana 1,” the first weather satellite in India; a NASA Supercomputer; and the “Kalpana Chawla Street” in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City (originally known as the 74th Street).
The Commercial Pilot’s licenses for multi- and single-engine land and seaplanes and the Certificated Flight Instructor’s license with glider and airplane ratings were two licenses Chawla held. Some of her favorite activities were reading, flying (tail-wheel airplanes and aerobatics), backpacking and hiking.
“When you lift off, the pressure is supposed to be maximum. But actually, it was very benign. Very enjoyable. But as soon as the engines cut off and you get to zero gravity, you felt as if you were being pushed off your seat. You feel disoriented. You don’t feel aligned with anything. I felt for a few good hours that I was falling,” Chawla said.
“Astronaut Bio: Kalpana Chawla 5/04.” NASA, NASA, May 2004, www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/chawla.html.
“Back Row, Left to Right: Dr. David Brown, Dr. Laurel Clark, Payload Commander Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon. Front Row, Left to Right: Commander Rick Husband, Flight Engineer Kalpana Chawla, Co-Pilot William McCool.” The Denver Post, Digital First Media, 30 Jan. 2013, www.denverpost.com/2013/01/30/10-years-after-columbia-disaster-family-members-remember/.
Dhar, Abira. “Exclusive: Kalpana Chawla’s Husband Denies Rights to Make Biopic.” The Quint, 28 Apr. 2017, www.thequint.com/entertainment/bollywood/husband-of-astronaut-kalpana-chawla-on-biopic.
Getty. “News Nation.” News Nation, 17 Mar. 2017, www.newsnation.in/photos/entertainment/alia-bhatt-unknown-facts-2006/slide1.
Harrison, Jean-Pierre. “About the Author.” The Edge of Time: The Authoritative Biography of Kalpana Chawla, Harrison Publishing, harrisonpublishing.net/author.html.
Harrison, Jean-Pierre. India. The Edge of Time: The Authoritative Biography of Kalpana Chawla, Harrison Publishing, p. 1, harrisonpublishing.net/pdf/book/kalpana_book.1.1.pdf.
Harrison Publishing. “Kalpana with Her Husband Jean-Pierre.” The Quint, www.thequint.com/entertainment/bollywood/husband-of-astronaut-kalpana-chawla-on-biopic.
“Kalpana Chawla Quotes.” BrainyQuote, Xplore, www.brainyquote.com/authors/kalpana_chawla.
Nation, News. “Remembering Kalpana Chawla From Karnal to NASA Have a Look at Her Wonderful Journey to Space.” News Nation, 17 Mar. 2017, www.newsnation.in/photos/news/remembering-kalpana-chawla-from-karnal-to-nasa-have-a-look-at-her-wonderful-journey-to-space-7-2007/slide1.
Pacheco, Sunitra. “Remembering Kalpana Chawla: First Indian Woman in Space.” Femina, The Times Group, 1 Feb. 2017, www.femina.in/celebs/international/life-and-journey-of-kalpana-chawla-36584.html.