Chawla, Kalpana

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Kalpana Chawla

Born July 1, 1961

Karnal, India

Died February 1, 2003

In Columbia explosion upon return to Earth

Astronaut and aeronautical engineer

"You're floating [in space]…. Earth is very beautiful. I wish everyone could see it."

K alpana Chawla was the first female astronaut from India. To pursue her dream of flying airplanes and becoming an aerospace engineer, she studied physics, chemistry, and math in high school and excelled at an engineering college in India. She then took on advanced studies in the United States. She joined the American space program in 1995 and traveled millions of miles in space, orbiting Earth hundreds of times on two space-shuttle missions. She was a flight engineer and mission specialist on the space shuttle Columbia, which broke up sixteen minutes before it was scheduled to land on February 1, 2003. Chawla and her six fellow astronauts were killed.

Stargazer and trailblazer

Kalpana Chawla was born on July 1, 1961, in Karnal, India, in the farming state of Haryana, 75 miles from New Delhi, India's capital city. Her father, Banarsi Lal Chawla, worked at various odd jobs until he started his own business manufacturing boxes. From there, he started several other successful enterprises. Her mother, Sanjogta Kharbanda, was the daughter of a doctor. After giving birth to two daughters, Sunita and Deepa, and a son, Sanjay, Chawla's mother wanted another son, she later told Time magazine, "but out came Kalpana, who has achieved more than a boy could."

Chawla was captivated by airplanes early in her life. She and her brother Sanjay would watch planes as they flew to and from a local flight school. Throughout her school years, Chawla created projects and wrote papers about stars, planets, and outer space. She decided she wanted to be an aerospace engineer when she was twelve and began focusing on science courses. At Tagore Bal Niketan Secondary School, she specialized in physics, chemistry, and math and also took language courses. When she learned about one of India's first mail-delivery pilots and saw a display of some of his equipment and the planes he flew, Chawla became even more enthusiastic about flying and engineering.

Chawla entered Punjab Engineering College to study aeronautical engineering. She had to contend with and overcome social conventions, or behavior expected by society, about proper studies and professions for young women. Chawla was the only woman in the program. Another example of being tested by social conventions occurred when she accompanied Sanjay to flight school one day. Authorities at the school demanded that she get written consent of her guardian to attend, but her father refused consent.

Chawla on Her Early Inspiration

In her official National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) preflight interview for her 2003 Columbia mission, Kalpana Chawla reflected on her early interests in flying and aerospace. Her interview is from the Web site.

When I was going to high school back in India, growing up, I think I was very lucky that we lived in a … very small town and one of a handful of towns at that time which had flying clubs…. 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…. Also growing up, we knew of this person, J. R. D. Tata [1904–1993] 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.

Chawla graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1982 and won a scholarship to continue her studies in the United States. However, as the deadline drew near for applying to the U.S. college of her choice, the University of Texas in Arlington, her father was away on an extended business trip. As is customary, she needed his approval. Chawla was teaching at Punjab Engineering College when he returned from the trip and learned from his wife about Chawla's recent accomplishments and future hopes. He visited her in the classroom, gave his consent, and helped her to quickly obtain a visa, an official document that allows a noncitizen to attend school or to work in a different country. The date he visited her in the classroom was August 26, and the deadline for applying for classes at the university was August 31: She made it with no time to spare. Her family insisted that Sanjay accompany Chawla to help her get settled in Arlington, Texas.

Learning to fly

Almost immediately in Arlington, Chawla met Jean-Pierre Harrison, a flying instructor who would become her future husband. Chawla earned her master of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984 and married Harrison that year. Along with a love of flying, the couple shared such hobbies as scuba diving, hiking, reading, and listening to music. Chawla became an experienced pilot, earning commercial pilot licenses for land and sea planes and for gliders. She also earned a flight instructor's license for airplanes and gliders.

After Chawla graduated, the couple moved to Boulder, Colorado, where Chawla began her studies for a doctorate of philosophy degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. She earned her degree in 1988 and began working for the American space program at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center. Her area of research was powered-lift computational fluid dynamics, the study of airflows encountered by aircraft in flight. Her research included using simulators, or model aircrafts blasted by machine-driven winds, capturing information on two computers about how the aircrafts reacted, and then using the data to predict results of various wind effects on certain kinds of aircraft.

In 1993, Chawla became vice president of Overset Methods Inc., a research firm based in Los Altos, California.

She formed a team of researchers specializing in the development of ways to make the best use of aerodynamics, designs that direct airflow to ease resistance and increase speed. In 1994, Chawla was selected by NASA for astronaut training. In her first assignment, she served as crew representative working on technical issues, including the testing of space shuttle–control software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory.

Into space

In November 1996, Chawla was assigned as mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on STS-87 (the space shuttle Columbia). She trained for a year leading up to the shuttle launch on November 19, 1997. On the mission, which lasted until December 5, 1997, Chawla flew 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of Earth. The crew conducted experiments designed to study how the weightless environment of space affects various physical processes and to observe the Sun's outer atmospheric layers. Two members of the crew performed a space-walk to capture a satellite and to test tools and procedures that could be used for assembling a space station in the future.

Chawla made headlines around the world. She was featured on the cover of many magazines, including India's The Week, which showed her floating, unrestricted by gravity, in the shuttle. Her personal mission to fly in space had been accomplished. Talking about her experience in space, she told the News India-Times about looking out the window and seeing India's Himalayan Mountains: "The Ganges Valley looked majestic, mind boggling." In other interviews, she described how she pointed out New Delhi to the other crew members and said to them, "I lived near there," and of looking out the window just before falling asleep: "You're floating," she said. "The Nile River looks like a lifeline in the Sahara [desert in northern Africa]…. Earth is very beautiful. I wish everyone could see it."

Chawla had come a long way from Karnal, India, where she first dreamed of flying, and she did not forget her roots. In 1998, Chawla and her husband established a fund to help support students and education in her hometown. And on her space missions, Chawla carried a white silk banner as part of a worldwide campaign to honor teachers.

On her second flight on Columbia in 2003, Chawla was the flight engineer and mission specialist. Working twenty-four hours a day, in two alternating shifts of twelve hours, the crew successfully conducted almost eighty experiments. After her twelve-hour work period, Chawla would eat her dinner (she was a strict vegetarian) and then fall asleep looking out the window while listening to music.

"Space Truckin'"

On her space missions, Chawla carried nearly two dozen CDs, including ones by such artists as Abida Parveen (1954–), Yehudi Menuhin (1916–1999), Ravi Shankar (1920–), and the 1970s progressive rock group Deep Purple. She especially liked the Deep Purple song "Space Truckin'," an up-tempo rocker about cruising in a space ship around the universe, with a chorus inviting listeners to "Come on, Let's go space truckin'." Chawla even exchanged e-mails with band members during one of her space missions.

The Columbia mission was scheduled to land in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, February 1, 2003, at 9:16 a.m., Eastern Standard Time. As the shuttle

crossed the California coastline, it was traveling through the upper atmosphere at over twenty times the speed of sound. A member of the crew began filming a digital video.

Meanwhile, at Mission Control in Florida, where computers were monitoring the shuttle, engineers noticed a sudden loss of temperature readings on Columbia's left wing. In addition, sensors in the landing gear showed a significant rise in temperature, first by 20 then up to 30 degrees in five minutes. At 8:56 a.m., the temperature dropped off, then the

temperature reading stopped. The shuttle crew acknowledged the signal, and the temperature reading losses were not thought to be a problem. At 8:58 a.m., the ship was traveling 13,200 miles per hour—18 times the speed of sound; Columbia had descended to nearly 40 miles above Earth, over New Mexico, about 1,400 miles from the Kennedy Center runway and was proceeding as normal. But at 8:59 a.m., with the shuttle over west Texas, ground controllers noticed that Columbia's flight computer was steering the ship to the right. In the last few seconds of recorded computer data, evidence suggests that either shuttle commander Rick Husband (1957–2003) or pilot William McCool (1961–2003) might have attempted to take manual control of the landing process. Something had gone wrong.

Sixteen minutes before the shuttle was scheduled to touch down, Mission Control lost all radio contact and data. The shuttle was over east Texas, and at that time residents in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana reported hearing an explosion and witnessing flaming debris in the sky, which fell in parts of Texas and Louisiana. The shuttle had disintegrated, or broken up. Chawla and her six fellow astronauts were killed.

Doing what they loved

Memorial services for the Columbia astronauts were held at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. Kalpana Chawla, known as KC by her friends and colleagues, was considered a role model for Indian girls long before those events. As Jo McGowan wrote in Commonweal magazine, "Kalpana Chawla is a household name in India, and a first-name at that. When the space shuttle Columbia crashed this month, the headlines here were all full of 'Kalpana,' as if there were no need to identify any further." India renamed its first weather satellite Kalpana-1 in her honor. Found among shuttle wreckage were some of Chawla's music CDs. NASA used them as part of special commemorative plaques honoring the seven astronauts.

Five days after the tragedy, the digital tape the crew was filming shortly before the disaster was found near a town called Palestine in eastern Texas. The tape began at 8:35 a.m. and ended at 8:48 a.m.; eleven minutes later contact with Columbia was lost. As the film begins, Chawla asks fellow astronaut Laurel Clark (1961–2003), "We have ten minutes to get gloves on, Laurel, do you need help?" The film shows the astronauts preparing for landing and smiling for the camera. The tape ends four minutes before the first sign of trouble.

CBS News interviewed Charles Figley (1944–), director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University, about the tape. (Traumatology is the study of how people and organizations react to tragedy). He said that some might view the found tape as a miracle. "Suddenly here is a postcard of these men and women," Figley said. The video should provide additional peace of mind for the families of the astronauts, he added, "because it shows them happy and doing what they loved."

A year after the tragedy, a series of tests proved how the shuttle was damaged. A piece of foam insulation from Columbia's external fuel tank broke off and hit the left wing of the craft just 81 seconds after the shuttle lifted off on January 16, 2003. The ship was destroyed 16 days later as it cut through Earth's atmosphere in preparation for landing. Hot gases seeped inside the ship's damaged wing, melting the structure from inside and causing it to disintegrate in the upper atmosphere. Similar foam impacts had occurred during prior shuttle launches, but NASA did not believe the foam could cause significant damage.

—Roger Matuz

For More Information


Cabbage, Michael. Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia. New York: Free Press, 2004.

Cole, Michael D. The Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster: From First Liftoff to Tragic Final Flight. Rev. ed. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2003.

Gupta, Indra. Kalpana Chawla: A Fairy Tale Saga with a Tragic End. New Delhi: Icon Publication, 2003.

Padmanabhan, Anil. Kalpana Chawla: A Life. New Delhi; New York: Puffin Books, 2003.


Gibbs, Nancy. "Seven Astronauts, One Fate." Time (February 10, 2003): pp. 30–44.

McGowan, Jo. "Impossible Journey: India's Female Astronaut." Commonweal (February 28, 2003): p. 8.

Thomas, Evan. "Out of the Blue." Newsweek (February 10, 2003): p 22.

Woodmansee, Laura S. "Remembering KC." Ad Astra (March-May 2003): pp. 16–19.

Web Sites

"Astronaut Biography: Kalpana Chawla." (accessed on March 11, 2004).

Joseph, Josy. "The Chawlas' Odyssey." The Rediff Special. (accessed on March 11, 2004).

"Kalpana Chawla (Ph.D.), NASA Astronaut." National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Biographical Data. bios/chawla.html (accessed on March 11, 2004).

"Reporting Tips: Dr. Kalpana C. Chawla, Astronaut." South Asian Journalists Association. (accessed on March 11, 2004).

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Chawla, Kalpana

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