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A strong desire to travel beyond the blue yonder, to fly into the heavens and touch the stars some day... was all that Kalpana Chawla dreamt of.
Determined to the core Kalpana worked towards making her vision a reality. For this first female Indian-born NASA astronaut castles were not to be build on air but its foundation laid strong on earth.
Laying the Foundation
Hailing from a traditional middleclass family, Kalpana was the youngest of the four children. Different from her peers even as a young girl, sketching and painting airplanes were more her forte than dressing up Barbie dolls.
Sanjay, her brother was her sole mentor throughout her journey as both of them shared the same dream and vision - to fly. Sanjay's plans of being a commercial pilot were shattered when his medical reports were not upto the mark. Kalpana went ahead to make her brothers and her own dreams come true and mind you it hasn't been smooth sailing.
A brilliant academic record straight through school Kalpana took part in almost everything, from athletics to dance to science modeling. When she decided to join the Bachelor's Degree from Punjab University in Chandigarh, she happened to be the only girl in the aeronautics batch. Her family initial resisted her decision but they also knew that she was one determined woman and nothing could stop her. Master of science degree in aerospace engineering from University of Texas, 1984. Doctorate of philosophy in aerospace engineering from University of Colorado, 1988.
Kalpana Chawla enjoyed flying aerobatics and tail-wheel airplanes, hiking, backpacking, and reading. She had a Certificated Flight Instructor's license with airplane and glider ratings, Commercial Pilot's licenses for single- and multi-engine land and seaplanes, and Gliders, and instrument rating for airplanes.
At the age of 35 when most of the men are trying to build a career, her career graph had reached its peak. She was one among Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Laurel B. Clark, Ilan Ramon (from Israel) the seven-member crew on Columbia which spent 16 days in orbit studying the effects of micro gravity on a variety of materials, focusing on how metal and crystals solidify when removed from the distorting effects of gravity….phew now doesn't that sound too complicated?
She was one of more than 2000 applicants for a civilian scientist's position on Columbia's voyage. According to NASA her academic accomplishments, intense physical fitness and experience as a pilot made her a natural choice. Carving her identity in an otherwise men's domain she comfortably shoulders her male colleagues.
Her second flight was a moment of joy for all Indians. Her return was eagerly awaited, but fate had other plans. When the space ship was just 16 minutes away from the earth, it exploded in the atmosphere. She will always be an inspiration to many young men and women as she has paved the way for them to dream. To think beyond horizons and reach for the stars...
In 1988, Kalpana Chawla started work at NASA Ames Research Center in the area of powered-lift computational fluid dynamics. Her research concentrated on simulation of complex air flows encountered around aircraft such as the Harrier in "ground-effect." Following completion of this project she supported research in mapping of flow solvers to parallel computers, and testing of these solvers by carrying out powered lift computations. In 1993 Kalpana Chawla joined Overset Methods Inc., Los Altos, California, as Vice President and Research Scientist to form a team with other researchers specializing in simulation of moving multiple body problems. She was responsible for development and implementation of efficient techniques to perform aerodynamic optimization. Results of various projects that Kalpana Chawla participated in are documented in technical conference papers and journals.
Selected by NASA in December 1994, Kalpana Chawla reported to the Johnson Space Center in March 1995 as an astronaut candidate in the 15th Group of Astronauts. After completing a year of training and evaluation, she was assigned as crew representative to work technical issues for the Astronaut Office EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches. Her assignments included work on development of Robotic Situational Awareness Displays and testing space shuttle control software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory. In November, 1996, Kalpana Chawla was assigned as mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on STS-87. In January 1998, she was assigned as crew representative for shuttle and station flight crew equipment, and subsequently served as lead for Astronaut Office’s Crew Systems and Habitability section. She flew on STS-87 (1997) and STS-107 (2003) and has logged 30 days, 14 hours and 54 minutes in space.
Space Flight Experience
STS-87 Columbia (November 19 to December 5, 1997). STS-87 was the fourth U.S Microgravity Payload flight and focused on experiments designed to study how the weightless environment of space affects various physical processes, and on observations of the Sun's outer atmospheric layers. Two members of the crew performed an EVA (spacewalk) which featured the manual capture of a Spartan satellite, in addition to testing EVA tools and procedures for future Space Station assembly. STS-87 made 252 orbits of the Earth, traveling 6.5 million miles in in 376 hours and 34 minutes.
STS-107 Columbia (January 16 to February 1, 2003). The 16-day flight was a dedicated science and research mission. Working 24 hours a day, in two alternating shifts, the crew successfully conducted approximately 80 experiments. The STS-107 mission ended abruptly on February 1, 2003 when Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew perished during entry, 16 minutes prior to scheduled landing.In a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee conveyed his sympathies to the American people. "We mourn with you in this moment of grief. Our hearts go out to the bright young men and women who were on that spacecraft. For us in India, we felt that since one of them was an Indian-born woman it adds a special poignancy to the tragedy."
"The world has seen with admiration the U.S. spacecraft program. We hope that in the days to come it will reach new heights," Vajpayee added.
Here are some excerpts from NASA's official pre-flight interview for STS-107
Can you talk a little bit about the interest you had growing up and maybe some of the things that may have put you on the road to NASA? How did you get here? What was it about science that intrigued you? That helped you?
When I was going to high school back in India, growing up, I think I was very lucky that we lived in a town which is a very small town and one of a handful of towns at that time which had flying clubs. And, we would see these small Pushpak airplanes, which are not much different from Piper J3 Cubs that you see in the U.S. that students were flying as part of their training programs. Me and my brother, sometimes we would be on bikes looking up, which you shouldn't be doing, trying to see where these airplanes were headed. Every once in a while, we'd ask my dad if we could get a ride in one of these planes. And, he did take us to the flying club and get us a ride in the Pushpak and a glider that the flying club had. I think that's really my closest link to aerospace engineering that I can dig deep down and find out, out there. Also growing up, we knew of this person, J. R. D. Tata in India, who had done some of the first mail flights in India. And also the airplane that he flew for the mail flights now hangs in one of the aerodromes out there that I had had a chance to see. Seeing this airplane and just knowing what this person had done during those years was very intriguing. Definitely captivated my imagination. And, even when I was in high school if people asked me what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. In hindsight, it's quite interesting to me that just some of those very simple things helped me make up my mind that that's the area I wanted to pursue. During our school year in India, we have to figure out kind of early what particular subjects you want to pursue. Basically when you are in eighth grade, around 12 years of age, you have to pick up a track - whether you're going science (as in engineering) or science (as in medical). And, that probably is the earliest decision point when I said, "Since I'm going to do aerospace engineering, I'm going to study physics, chemistry, and math." And from then on, pretty much you are on a set track. And hoping, if, you know, this is what you want to do, and if it doesn't come out true that there are some other options that you have (which I did). And after pre-engineering, which is equivalent of 12th grade in US - by which time now you've been specializing in basically physics, chemistry, and math and some language - you are ready to go to an engineering college or another profession of your choice by taking part in exams or simply answering questionnaires and based on merit of your results. I was lucky to get into aerospace engineering at Punjab Engineering College. And really in my case the goal was, at that stage anyway, to be an aerospace engineer. The astronaut business is really, really farfetched for me to say, "Oh, at that time I even had an inkling of it." Aircraft design was really the thing I wanted to pursue. If people asked me what I wanted to do, I remember in the first year I would say, "I want to be a flight engineer." But, I am quite sure at that time, I didn't really have a good idea of what a flight engineer did. Because flight engineers do not do aircraft design, which was an area I wanted to pursue and did pursue in my career. And, it's sort of a nice coincident that that's what I am doing on this flight.
And can you tell us about some of the people in your life that inspired you, or maybe still inspire you, to do what you're doing now?
I think inspiration and tied with it is motivation. For me, definitely, it comes every day from people in all walks of life. It's easy for me to be motivated and inspired by seeing somebody who just goes all out to do something. For example, some of the teachers in high school. The amount of effort they put in to carry out their courses. The extra time they took to do experiments with us. And then, just the compliments they gave students for coming up with ideas - new ideas - [that], in hindsight, I wonder how they even had the patience to look at these. In general during my life, I would say I've been inspired by explorers. Different times during my life I've read books. More recently, say about Shackleton, the four or five books written by people in more recent times, and then during the expedition. And then some of the incredible feats these people carried out; like making [it] to the Pole almost, but making the wise decision to stop a hundred miles short and return. Lewis and Clark's incredible journey across America to find a route to water, if one existed. And, the perseverance and incredible courage with which they carried it out. Patty Wagstaff. You know, she started out kind of late flying aerobatic airplanes. And then had the where-with-all to say that she was going to take part in the championships. And then, became an unlimited U.S. champion three times in a row. And, that's not men's or women's; that's The Champion. There are so many people out there that just how they have done some incredible things. And how they inspire. You know, in explorers, Peter Matthiessen and how he has explored the whole world and chronicled life, animals and birds as they exist. And, he's done it by simply walking on his feet. You know, across [the] Himalayas. Across Africa. When I read about these people, I think the one thing that just stands out is their perseverance in how they carried out what they wished to carry out.