A Star Named Kalpana 

By Binisha Patel

"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.” - Kalpana Chawla


Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian female astronaut and the second Indian to fly in space. Unfortunately, right after her historic contribution to the space industry and Indian history, she tragically passed away on February 1, 2003.


Chawla was born in Karnal, India on March 17, 1961, as the youngest of four. Even as a child, Chawla was fascinated with airplanes and the sky. In fact, it seemed her parents had named her appropriately since Kalpana means “imagination” or “creativity” in Sanskrit. Her passion for planes grew, motivating her to attend Punjab Engineering College and obtain a Bachelor of Engineering in Aeronautical Engineering. To further her education, Chawla moved to the United States in 1982 and became a naturalized citizen. She then earned a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984 and a second Masters and PhD in 1988 from the University of Colorado Boulder.


Eventually, Chawla’s passions made way for her career; in 1988, she started working at NASA's Ames Research Center where she specialized in computational fluid dynamics to predict the behavior of air flowing around an aircraft. In 1993, Chawla became a part of Overset Methods Inc. as the vice president and a research scientist in order to simulate moving multiple body problems. Her role in the team was to efficiently and effectively perform aerodynamic optimization. In 1993, Chawla applied to be an astronaut candidate at NASA; even though she made it far along in the process, she was not chosen. However, the following year, she reapplied and made it into the 1995 NASA astronaut candidate class. After training for a year, she became a crew representative for the Astronaut Office EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches, working with Robotic Situational Awareness Displays and testing software for the space shuttles.


Chawla’s first official space trip was in November 1997 on the Columbia space shuttle as part of flight STS-87. She served as the mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator. The flight primarily studied how the weightlessness of space affected physical processes and observed the outer atmospheric layers of the Sun. The entire mission lasted from November to December, during which time Chawla spoke with Indian Prime Minister I. K. Gujral while in space. After the trip, in January 1998, Chawla served as a crew representative for shuttle and station flight crew equipment and as lead for Astronaut Offices Crew Systems and Habitability section.


In January 2003, Chawla found herself as part of the STS-107 Columbia flight team. The mission lasted 16 days in which the crew members performed over 80 experiments. By the end of the trip, Chawla had logged 30 days, 14 hours and 54 minutes in space. As the Columbia re-entered the atmosphere on February 1st, the crew died 16 minutes before the landing. Investigations done after the tragedy placed responsibility of the crew’s deaths on a piece of insulation that had broken off during the initial launch and damaged the thermal protection system of the shuttle. During re-entry, the shuttle was unable to protect against the heat of the atmosphere and became unstable until the shuttle depressurized, killing all seven members of the crew.


Kalpana Chawla was memorialized in the public’s eyes as an international hero, encouraging young women from all nations to follow their passions, no matter the barriers. Out of gratitude for her service, she was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. NASA also recognized her work, awarding her the NASA Space Flight Medal and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. The University of Texas in Arlington dedicated a memorial to Chawla in the engineering college in 2010. Chawla has had, satellites, streets, scholarships, songs, and stories, as well as some hills on Mars, named in her honor. Kalpana Chawla epitomizes that success can be earned from diligence and perseverance; her story inspires people from all walks of life that see themselves reflected in her story.