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KALPANA CHAWLA (1961-2003)


Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian woman astronaut. She was born in Karnal, Haryana in 1961, where her father was a member of the flying club, which gave her early exposure to flying. She studied aeronautical engineering in Chandigarh and got her B.Sc. degree in 1982. That year she shifted to the USA for higher studies, got a masters degree in aeronautics from the University of Texas in Arlington, and a second M.Sc. in the same subject from the University of Colorado at Boulder. While studying for her second Masters degree she met and married Jean-Pierre Harrison. She completed her Ph.D. at Boulder in 1988, became an American citizen in 1990 and joined the NASA Ames Research Centre for a while.

She was selected by NASA in December 1994 to join the Fifteenth Group of shuttle astronauts. From March 1995 she undertook intensive training at the Johnson Space Centre, specialising in robotics. Her first mission, STS 87, came in 1997 when she was part of the team that flew Space Shuttle Columbia. On this mission she orbited the earth 252 times and was in charge of operating the robotic arms used for various tasks around the ship. She also carried out experiments relating to space habitability, and concerning the growth of crystals and proteins in space. The main purpose of the flight was to test equipment and tools in microgravity situations for use in the International Space Station and to study the sun’s atmosphere.

Her second mission was the ill-fated STS-107 aboard Space Shuttle Columbia once again, which began on 16 January 2003 after repeated delays due to faults and problems with the shuttle. This was intended as a short intensive trip. The crew, working round the clock in shifts, completed more than 80 experiments.

The shuttle attempted to return to earth on 1 February 2003, but a hole which had developed in the ceramic tiles on the underside of the fuselage allowed heat to reach the aluminum struts underneath, causing a devastating mid air disintegration sixteen minutes before landing. Space Shuttle Columbia blew up over the North American continent, scattering wreckage over a huge area and killing the seven-member crew. No bodies were found.

Kalpana was an FAA certified flight instructor and accomplished pilot. She was also an enthusiastic ham radio operator. After her death she was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. She is a role model for young people all over the world, especially in India. Asteroid number 51826 was named Kalpanachawla after her. A series of meteorological satellites launched by India has also been named Kalpana in her honour. “None of our astronauts traveled a longer path to space than Kalpana Chawla,” U.S. President George W. Bush said. “She left India as a student but she would see the nation of her birth, all of it, from hundreds of miles above.”
 
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