Childhood & Early Years
Kalpana Chawla was born on 17 March 1962 in Karnal, a city located in the Indian state of Haryana. However, her official date of birth, which was altered to enable her to appear for her matriculation examination, was 1 July 1961. At home, she was called Monto.
Her father, Banarasi Lal Chawla, originally from the Multan district of West Punjab, relocated to Haryana after the country was partitioned in 1947. On coming to India, he started working as a street hawker; later a cloth seller and a metal fabricator. Eventually he set up a tire manufacturing business.
Her mother, Sanyogita Chawla, was a homemaker. She was a very supportive and liberal lady. At that time, girls’ education was considered a luxury; yet she made sure that all her girls went to school.
Kalpana was born youngest of his parents’ four children; she had two elder sisters named Deepa and Sunita and an elder brother named Sanjay. From the very beginning, the children were encouraged to work hard and to gather knowledge.
According to her brother Sanjay, Kalpana was the most intelligent of them. Always a precarious and confident child with lots of natural curiosity, she loved to discover how things worked. The sky, with stars twinkling in it, also caught her fancy.
In summer nights, as the family went to the rooftop to sleep, Kalpana remained awake for a long time, watching the stars twinkling in the sky. She also became interested in airplanes early in her childhood, scrambling to the rooftop as planes from nearby flying club roared over their house.
For her formal education, Kalpana was enrolled at Tagore Bal Niketan Senior Secondary School. Till then known as Monto, she herself chose ‘Kalpana’ as her good name because it meant ‘imagination’.
At school, she enjoyed studying Hindi, English and Geography; but Science was always her favorite subject. A good student, she used to secure good ranks all through her school years.
Although she excelled in academics she was not a bookworm, taking keen interest in extracurricular activities and her obsession with airplanes never wavered. In drawing classes, while her classmates drew mountains and rivers she would draw colorful airplanes and make airplanes models in craft classes.
In 1976, Kalpana graduated from Tagore Bal Niketan, passing her class 10 board examination with flying colors. Thereafter, she entered DAV College for Women for her plus 2 education. By then, with the launching of Viking I in 1975, she had become keenly interested in space technology.
While explaining the concept of null set in algebra, her teacher in DAV College gave the example of Indian women astronauts as there was no Indian women astronaut at that time. To everybody’s surprise, Kalpana got up to say, “Who knows Ma’am, one day this set may not be empty!”
In 1978, she completed her schooling from DAV College and decided to enter Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh, with Aeronautical Engineering. While her father objected to the idea, believing teaching or medicine to be more suitable career option for a girl, her mother gave her unfaltering support. Eventually, her father relented.
In 1978, Kalpana moved to Chandigarh to enter PEC with Aeronautical Engineering. She was the only female student in her batch and as she could not avail the hostel facility, she hired a small room over a garage and began to live in it, cycling to her college every day from there.
Along with her formal studies, she began to read books and magazines on aviation. In her college, she joined both the Aero Club and Astro Society; shortly becoming one of the joint secretaries of these clubs. Concurrently, she also started learning karate, and earned a black belt.
In 1982, Kalpana earned her Bachelors degree in Aeronautical Engineering, securing the third rank in her batch. With it, she became the first female aeronautical engineer to pass out from Punjab Engineering College. For her master’s degree, Kalpana secured admission in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas in USA.
Although her family was reluctant to let her go abroad she was able to persuade them and left for the USA in 1982, joining University of Texas at Arlington a little late. She graduated from there in 1984, earning her first Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering.
In 1984, after graduating from University of Texas, she joined University of Colorado Boulder, earning a second Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering in 1986. Thereafter, she began to work on her doctoral thesis, earning her PhD in 1988.
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In 1988, Kalpana Chawla began her career at NASA’s Ames Research Center. There, she started working on power-lift computational fluid dynamics, concentrating on the concept of vertical and/or short take-off and landing. Once the project was complete, she began working on mapping of flow solvers to parallel computers.
In 1993, she was made Vice President of Overset Methods Inc. and moved to Los Altos, California, with the responsibility of developing efficient techniques to perform aerodynamic optimization and implementing the same. There, she formed a team of researchers and began working on simulation of moving multiple body problems.
In December 1994, she was selected to join NASA Astronaut Corps, a unit of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Its job is to select, train, and provide astronauts not only for U.S., but also for international space missions and is based at Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.
In March 1995, she joined Johnson Space Center as an Astronaut Candidate in the 15th Group of Astronauts. There, she underwent rigorous training for one year, at the end of which she was assigned to the Astronaut Office EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches to work as crew representative.
As crew representative, she was assigned to work on the development of Robotic Situational Awareness Displays. Besides, she was also assigned to test space shuttle control software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory.
First Space Travel
In November 1996, Chawla was assigned to Space Shuttle Columbia flight, STS-87 as Mission Specialist 1 and the primary Robotic Arm Operator. It was launched on November 19, 1997 from Launch Complex 39B of the Kennedy Space Center.
During her first mission, Chawla spent around 15 days (376 hours, 34 minutes) in space, making 252 orbits around the earth, traveling a total distance of 6.5 million miles. The mission returned to the earth on December 5, 1997.
Among other experiments, STS-87 mainly focused on how the weightless in the space affects physical processes. They also tested EVA tools and procedures and observed the outer atmospheric layers of the sun.
Chawla was especially responsible for deploying a Spartan satellite, which developed a snag, requiring two members of the crew, Winston Scott and Takao Doi, to take a spacewalk and manually capture it. Later it was found that there was an error in the software interfaces, which absolved her of negligence.
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In January 1998, after the completion of post flight activities, Chawla joined the Astronaut Offices Crew Systems, serving as crew representative for the shuttle and station flight crew equipment. Subsequently, she served as lead for Astronaut Offices Crew Systems and Habitability section.
Last Space Mission
In 2000, Kalpana Chawla was selected as a Mission Specialist for STS-107, the final flight of Space Shuttle Columbia. It was a scientific mission and included a small laboratory, christened as ‘space hab’. The laboratory was seven meters in length, five meters in width and four meters in height.
Initially it was planned that the mission would take off on January 11, 2001; but was delayed 18 times due to technical problems and scheduling conflicts. Eventually it was launched on January 16, 2003 from Kennedy Space Center's LC-39-A. But the launching was not without any hitch.
81.7 seconds after the launch, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the Space Shuttle external tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter, damaging it considerably. At that time, STS-107 was at an altitude of about 65,600 feet, traveling at a speed of 1,650 miles per hour.
The space shuttle remained in the space for 15 days, 22 hours, 20 minutes, 32 seconds. During this period, the mission crew worked twenty-four hours a day in two alternating shifts, performing nearly 80 experiments, focusing not only on space science, but also on health and safety of the astronauts.
After a successful trip in the space, STS-107 re-entered the earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003. But the crew never reached home because 16 minutes before the scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Center, the space craft disintegrated over Texas, killing each of them.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1983, Kalpana Chawla married Jean-Pierre Harrison, a French-American flying instructor and a author, knowns for his two books: ‘The Edge of Time: The Authoritative Biography of Kalpana Chawla’ and ‘Principles of Helicopter Flight’. The couple did not have any children. In 1991, she became an American citizen.
Chawla died on February 1, 2003 at around 9 AM, when STS-107 disintegrated over Texas. The damage caused at the time of its launch allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate and destroy its internal wing structure when it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, eventually leading to the disintegration of the spacecraft.
The mortal remains of all the crew members were later identified. Chawla’s remains were cremated and her ashes were scattered at National Park in Utah in accordance to her wish.
After her death, ‘51826 Kalpanachawla’, an Eoan asteroid located in the outer region of the asteroid belt and ‘Chawla Hill’, one of the seven peaks in the Columbia Hill chain on planet Mars, have been named in her honor.
In India, MetSat-1, the first satellite in the meteorological series of satellites called MetSat, was renamed ‘Kalpana-1’. NASA also dedicated a supercomputer in her honor.
In 2004, the University of Texas opened a dormitory named Kalpana Chawla Hall in her honor. The girls’ hostel in University of Punjab has also been named after her. Apart from these, many other colleges and universities in India have renamed their student dormitories and hostels after her.
Kalpana Chawla Government Medical College (KCGMC) in Karnal and Kalpana Chawla Planetarium in Jyotisar, Kurukshetra also carry her legacy. In addition, numerous awards and honors have also been established in her name.
74th Street in Jackson Heights in New York City has been renamed ‘Kalpana Chawla Way’ in her honor. In Mumbai, India, a crossroad in Borivli has been renamed Kalpana Chawla Chowk.