Reaching the stars – Kalpana Chawla

Tiny dots in the distant dark sky,

Twinkling and gleaming with great shy,

I stretched my hand to catch one star

Only to know how large apart I was so far

I closed my eyes and captured its view

And told the stars, I will come there to see you.

Every kid is fascinated and attracted to the glittery night sky as it is studded with innumerable stars that shine and twinkle as if smiling at the world. The urge to get hold of a star or see them closely captivates children from a very young age. This interest that they develop towards a particular thing is what shapes their future and helps them find what they love to do.

A bubbly and lively girl from Karnal, Punjab, Kalpana Chawla, as a kid, loved drawing pictures of aeroplanes. The flying machines and the twinkling stars always kept her intrigued and developed in her an interest to learn more about the aeroplanes. Born on March 17, 1962, Kalpana had an inquisitive mind and loved reading about space. After her schooling, she studied Aeronautical Engineering at Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh. During those days when education for girls was still a social issue and was strangled in the meaningless debates by narrow-minded people, Kalpana’s family encouraged her when she expressed her desire to pursue her Masters in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. She obtained her Master of Science in the year 1984. She went on to obtain her second Masters in 1986 and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in 1988 from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Her vision was clear. She wanted to become an astronaut and fulfill her dream of seeing the stars. Passionate and dedicated to making her dream come true, Kalpana joined the NASA in 1988 where she did Conceptual Fluid Dynamics research on Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing concepts. She joined Overset Methods, Inc. as Vice President and Research Scientist in 1993.  Chawla held a Certificated Flight Instructor rating for airplanes, gliders and Commercial Pilot licenses for single and multi-engine airplanes, seaplanes and gliders. In April 1991, she became a naturalized U.S. citizen following which she applied for the NASA Astronaut Corps, which she joined in March 1995.

Kalpana Chawla got selected for her first space mission in 1996. The mission, which involved a crew of six astronauts that flew the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87 began on November 19, 1997. Chawla was the first Indian-born woman and the second Indian person to fly in space, following cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma. She traveled over 10.4 million miles in 252 orbits of the earth, logging more than 372 hours in space. The STS-87 shuttle carried numerous experiments and observing tools on its trip. Chawla was responsible for deploying the Spartan satellite which malfunctioned and two other astronauts from the shuttle had to perform a spacewalk to recapture it. After the completion of STS-87 post-flight activities, Chawla was assigned to technical positions in the astronaut office to work on the space station.

The STS-107 crew includes, from the left, Mission Specialist David Brown, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Michael Anderson, Pilot William McCool and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA photo)

In 2000, Chawla was selected for her second flight as part of the crew of STS-107. This mission was repeatedly delayed due to scheduling conflicts and technical problems such as the July 2002 discovery of cracks in the shuttle engine flow liners. On January 16, 2003, Chawla finally returned to space aboard Space Shuttle Columbia on the ill-fated STS-107 mission which included the microgravity experiments, for which the crew conducted nearly 80 experiments studying earth and space science, advanced technology development, and astronaut health and safety. During the launch of STS-107, Columbia’s 28th mission, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the Space Shuttle external tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter. A few previous shuttle launches had seen minor damage from foam shedding, but some engineers suspected that the damage to Columbia was more serious. When Columbia re-entered the atmosphere of Earth, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate and destroy the internal wing structure, which caused the spacecraft to become unstable and slowly break apart.

On the 1st of February, 2003 the Columbia disintegrated over Texas during its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere causing the death of all the seven crew members of which Kalpana Chawla was a part. The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster which occurred shortly before it was scheduled to conclude its 28th mission, STS-107, left the whole world shocked and grief-stricken.

Kalpana Chawla, who was the first Indian woman to have achieved a feat of traveling into space lost her life while coming back to the earth, victorious, fulfilling her dream not just once but twice. She was a woman of courage and dedication, who fought against all odds to reach her goals with the sky as her limit. Her journey from a small town in Punjab to the zenith was extraordinary and is an inspiration to many others who believe in dreaming and making their dreams come true. India and the whole world is proud and salutes this courageous woman who reached the stars and remained a star herself in the distant sky.

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia, Nasa.gov

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