Kalpana Chawla: Destined For The Stars

Posted on February 4, 2003 
Filed Under Julian, Profile

kalpana : any desire of the present or future, also refers to imagination or fantasy.

“I pretty much had my dreams, like anybody else and I followed them. People around me fortunately always encouraged and said ‘if that’s what you want to do carry on’.” Kalpana Chawla , just prior to leaving on her last mission.

Kalpana ChawlaIT IS EASY to spot Kalpana Chawla in pre-flight pictures of the ill-fated Columbia shuttle mission. While her crewmates looked snug in their lumpy orange suits, Kalpana looked like hers was two sizes too large.

Her smallish frame belied the credentials of a career astronaut who, until Saturday’s tragedy, seemed destined to reach greater heights in NASA’s male-dominated hierarchy.

At 41, Kalpana held a doctorate in aerospace engineering, a commercial pilot’s licence, a flight instructor’s licence, had racked up seven years of experience at the distinguished NASA Ames Research Center and as vice president of a private research company.

On her first shuttle mission in 1997, she had logged 376 hours and 34 minutes in space, exceeding even the celebrated first American woman in space — Sally Ride.

In that mission, also on the Columbia, Kalpana, apart from other research duties, was in charge of the 50-foot robot arm that was to release a US$6 million payload – the Spartan satellite.

Though she released Spartan from the robot arm in time on November 21, officials said it appeared small control jets failed to activate, leaving the satellite without the ability to orientate itself.

Kalpana attempted to recapture the glitchy satellite, but failed. Headlines in India back then suggested she had goofed. NASA refused to assign blame suggesting there were problems with the satellite itself. The satellite, which on earth weighs 3,000 pounds, was later recovered by two crewmates manually on a spacewalk, and Kalpana successfully aided them with the arm to berth it back in the shuttle.

The difficulties with Spartan had left her wondering how NASA officials and co-workers would respond once she returned. Her fears were unwarranted.

“Some of the senior people, the very senior astronauts, shook my hand and said, ‘K.C., you did a great job. Don’t let anyone tell you different,'” she related in an interview.

That NASA was to commit Kalpana for a second mission was testimony to their continued faith in her ability.


For many Indian migrants and the vast diaspora of nomadic seekers in or bound for foreign shores in search of a better life, the enduring legacy of Kalpana Chawla will always be that of the prodigal daughter made good.

To her NASA peers, she was simply known as “K.C.”, an acronym stemming most likely from the inability of most Americans to pronounce her name correctly. (For the record, it’s KULL-pah-na CHAO-la, “kull” rhymes with “hull”, “pah” rhymes with “pa”, “CHAO” rhymes with “ciao”.)

To her family she was affectionately known as “montu”.

Kalpana was a youngest daughter of tire factory owner Banarsi Lal and housewife Sanyogita. She was a strict vegetarian and a Hindu from Karnal, Haryana, about 76 miles from New Delhi, India.

In an interview with an Indian weekly, her mother recalls expecting a boy instead of a girl, “but out came Kalpana, who has achieved more than a boy could.”

In a society where independence in a young girl is disdained, Sanyogita said her youngest was “very tomboyish” and used to cut her own hair, never wore ironed clothes and learnt karate. A neighbour related that she loved to play cricket with the boys and wear trousers. Her brother Sanjay pronounced: “From childhood she was different”. kalpana5

Her teachers remembered her as an extrovert and always among the top five students in class. She drew airplanes and “colourful charts and models depicting the sky and stars” and harboured dreams of flight.

In pre-flight interviews of the Mission STS-107, she seemed to have lost none of that child-like fascination for space: “Just looking at earth, looking at stars during the night part of Earth, just looking at our planet roll by and speed at which it goes by and the awe that it inspires, just so many good thoughts come to my mind when you see all that. Doing it again is like living a dream, a good dream once again,” she said.

On completing her pre-university from Dayal Singh College in Karnal, the headstrong Kalpana made up her mind that she planned to study aeronautical engineering at Chandigarh, a city 80 miles away (and now fast gaining recognition for churning out a pool of information technology graduates in the vein of Bangalore and Hyderabad.)

The move caused the expected uproar among the relatives, given the conservative, traditional settings of the time. Kalpana simply packed her bags and threatened to go. Her mother relented.

Of her parents, Kalpana explained: “They are conservative, but very different from lots of other parents. For example, my father never gave me a hard time on career choices. There wasn’t any, ‘No, absolutely not.’ You could always say, ‘But, I want to do it.’ If you said it enough times, then you would have it. In families that are truly conservative, you don’t even dare ask.”kalpana7

Of her mother she said: “I think I wouldn’t even call my mom conservative, though she is from a conservative family, and I think everyone thinks of her that way. But as far back as I can remember, she’s always said that you really must do what pleases you.”

“When I joined (Punjab Engineering College), there were only seven girls in the whole college. I was the first girl to go into aerospace engineering. The department chair kept trying to channel me into electrical or mechanical, and I thought, ‘This is weird, why is he trying to do that’. On her insistence, she was allowed her choice.

Kalpana graduated in 1982 and the move to the United States was inevitable. Again, sending an “unwed daughter” abroad alone was going against traditional grain. The compromise was sending brother Sanjay as a “chaperon” until she was settled.

In the US, she met Jean-Pierre Harrison, a freelance flying instructor, and struck up an immediate friendship. She was soon off for scuba diving and hiking adventures and revelled in long flying trips.

Sanjay was informed of developments and prevailed upon his parents when Kalpana said she wanted to marry Jean-Pierre. They wed in 1984, the same year she graduated from University of Texas with a master’s in aerospace engineering.

She was then accepted for a doctorate program in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Cruelly, fate had set her in the tragic footsteps of another alumnus of the university Ellison Onizuka, who died when the Challenger exploded on Jan 28th, 1986.


Away from her research, Kalpana was also realizing her first love — learning how to fly. “I like airplanes, it’s that simple. The theoretical side is mentally challenging but flying for me is sheer fun. It appeals to all my senses,” she said in one interview.

Kalpana enjoyed flying aerobatics, thrilling friends with loop-the-loops and barrel rolls in tailwheel airplanes (airplanes with a third wheel under the tail).

As a child in Karnal, she spoke of riding out to the flying club with her brother to see Pushpak airplanes, which were similar to Piper Cubs used in the US to teach flying, and having tasted her first ride on one, after haranguing her dad. She recalls also seeing the original airplane used by India’s civil aviation pioneer the late JRD Tata, who headed the Tata group, for early mail flights.

“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,” she said.

Kalpana counted Patty Wagstaff, a three-time U.S. National Aerobatic Champion, and Peter Matthiessen, a travel chronicler as among those who inspired her, but also paid tribute to her teachers in high school in India. “It’s easy for me to be motivated and inspired by seeing somebody who just goes all out to do something,” she said.

On graduating from UC-Boulder in 1988, Kalpana started work at NASA Ames Research Center in the esoteric area of computational fluid dynamics. Her research concentrated on simulation of complex airflows encountered around powered-lift aircraft such as the Harrier Jumpjet. In 1993 Kalpana Chawla joined Overset Methods Inc, Los Altos, California, a company specializing in aerodynamic optimization.kalpana8


Then came the call from NASA. In December 1994, Kalpana was one of the final 19 from 2962 applicants and reported to the Johnson Space Center for training the following March as an astronaut candidate in the 15th Group of Astronauts.

Her acceptance was unprecedented and vaulted her into the limelight in India. She was India’s first woman astronaut and first Asian-born woman to be chosen.

Kalpana described it then: “It was very far-fetched to think I’d get to fly on the space shuttle — because I lived in India, in a very small town. And forget about space, I didn’t even know if my folks were going to let me go to the engineering college.”

“But I think everybody fantasizes. And I definitely did my fair share. During the Mars mission, even though the Apollo Program had already passed, the things I fantasized that we are leaving Earth, that we’re going to Mars, we’ve landed on Mars, that we have our little spaceships, and we’re moving around in the canyons out there,” she said.

Kalpana was assigned as mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on STS-87 and was in space for 16 days from November 19 to December 5, 1997. She had travelled 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of the Earth.

Being a vegetarian, her meals in space were well-documented: rice pilaf, tortillas, broccoli au gratin, garden split-pea soup, nuts and dried fruits, cheese spread and tea with cream and sugar.

Musically, it was pointed out she had fondness for Raga Mishra Piloo, played by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and was awakened by it in the mornings in space.

On STS-107 she carried 20 CDs including Deep Purple’s Machine Head and Purpendicular, both selected because they had aviation/space-related songs, and albums by several Indian musicians including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia and of course, Ravi Shankar.

Kalpana also carried a banner sent by Punjab Engineering College students where she graduated two decades back, during her last space mission.

The students had said in their message: “As you prepare to take a walk among the stars, this note comes from your alma mater to tell you how proud your achievements make us feel. The wishes and affection of your juniors will always be with you as you cut across the sky into the serenity of space.”Washington Post

The message proved to be her epitath.

Perhaps, photographs in newspapers around the world — of the shiny shards of Columbia streaking across a clear, blue sky — were the appropriate final images to remember her by.

Kalpana Chawla lived her life like a comet. She seized life with a vitality that shone through her natural smile. She profoundly affected everyone she came in touch with here on Earth as a wife, daughter, sister, student, friend, colleague and role model.

And she never really cared if the suit didn’t fit. As our hero, she filled it well.

Compiled and written by Julian Matthews. The story is copyrighted by Trinetizen Media but is free to be used for publication purposes in its entirety. Photos courtesy of NASA and SAJA.

Endnote: This story is dedicated to every Indian migrant who has left his or her motherland in search of a new life.

This goes out to every migrant who struggles with the language and the cultural shock and social “norms” in a foreign land; to the one whose degree and work experience has been ignored and whose every application for a job is replied with the standard “We regret to inform you”.

This goes out to the factory manager, the doctor and the MBA holder, now forced to drive a taxi, or sell insurance through cold-calling or vacuum bank floors late at night.

This goes out to the one who has gone down on her hands and knees to wash toilets, or stand behind a counter all day and ask each customer inanely whether they want the small, medium or large Coke with their burger.

This goes out to the one who feels so alone and alienated and cold in the darkness of their 30 sq ft room and breaks down in tears from callused hands, aching feet and sore backs, longing for mum’s cooking, the banter of a close friend, the warmth of a hug.

In Kalpana’s spirit, we each live in hope of being able to distinguish the mud from the stars, and may we reach out for one, one day and claim it as our own.

The Chawlas’ Odyssey (very good backgrounder from father’s perspective)
Crew wake-up calls: Deep Purple, Ravi Shankar, “Imagine”, “Up on the roof” and “Drops of Jupiter”
STS-87 Wake-Up Songs
Nixlog: Comprehensive graphic links
Google news links
Yahoo news coverage
Kalpana’s alma mater: Punjab Engineering College and the message
Colorado University, Boulder loses second astronaut alumni
University of Texas at Arlington, Kalpana profile
The Blog that tracked re-entry of Columbia
Original Columbia shuttle newsgroup archive (circa 1984-1986)

Quotes: “I’m a citizen of the world, I belong everywhere.”
“…in the retina of my eye, the whole earth and the sky could be seen reflected…and everybody said: ‘oh wow!’ “, from video clip, day 14, STS-107


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