On this day in 1962, she was born. The first Indian-born woman to fly in space and only the second Indian person to do so. Kalpana Chawla — the name that leaves almost all Indians with pride — would have been 55 today had it not been for the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster on February 1, 2003 which led to her death and six other astronauts. On her birth anniversary today, we bring you some facts about the Indian astronaut whose achievements continue to inspire many.
* Kalpana Chawla was born and brought up in Karnal, Haryana. While she completed her schooling from Tagore School, Karnal in 1976, she went on to get a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College in 1982. The same year she moved to US to pursue a Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. In 1988 she got a PhD in the subject from the University of Colorado.
* Chawla knew early on in her life that she wanted to be an aerospace engineer. “Every once in a while,” Chawla said to NASA, “we’d ask my dad if we could get a ride in one of these planes (planes from local flying clubs). And, he did take us to the flying club and get us a ride in the Pushpak and a glider that the flying club had,” she was quoted as saying. Kalpana had been inspired by JRD Tata’s work in aviation.
* Even in school, Kalpana would often ask questions about space. According to an excerpt from Dilip M Salwi’s book Kalpana Chawla: India’s First Woman Astronaut, 2003, during a school project on making physical geography map of India, Kalpana had covered the classroom ceiling completely with dots marked on blackened newspapers. Apart from this, young Kalpana had always been more eager to draw aeroplanes flying in the sky over a scenery, with mountains, rivers and houses.
* While being introduced to ‘Null set or empty set’ in her mathematics class in college, Kalpana had reportedly said an Indian woman astronaut was a classic example of the set as till then no Indian woman had become an astronaut. She also added, ‘Who knows, Madam, one day this set may not exist?’ During career discussions with her peers, she would always point to the sky and say, ‘I’m going to fly!’ During media interviews, Chawla’s mother said that her daughter was “different” from girls her age. “She used to cut her own hair, never wore ironed clothes, learned karate,” she was quoted as saying.
* Called KC by her friends, Kalpana was admired for her kindness and her constant striving for perfection. Astronaut Office Chief Kent Rominger said in a NASA report, “She had a terrific sense of humor and loved flying small airplanes with her husband and loved flying in space. Flying was her passion. She would often remind her crew as her training flow would be delayed and become extended, she would say, ‘Man, you are training to fly in space. What more could you want?'”
* The Indian astronaut died just 16 minutes before landing as the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas during its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. In what would turn out to be her last communication with her family, Kalpana had said, “Our mission is successful and we are all fine here.” In his tribute to Kalpana, the-then US President George W Bush said United States would be equally proud of Dr. Kalpana Chawla as India.
* In an interview to Rediff.com, Kalpana’s elder sister, Sunita Chaudhary said whenever anybody reminded Kalpana of her Indian roots, Kalpana would assert, “I am a citizen of the world. I belong everywhere.”
* During her last flight, Kalpana had with her reportedly a special flag designed by art students from around India. The flag, she believed, depicted the importance of education and it was a reminder to salute teachers like Nirmala Namboothiripad, who taught her science at the Tagore Public School in Karnal.
* Before embarking on her second, and what would become her last, space journey, Kalpana was asked during STS-107 preflight interview what inspired her. She said, “I think inspiration and tied with it is motivation. For me, definitely, it comes every day from people in all walks of life. It’s easy for me to be motivated and inspired by seeing somebody who just goes all out to do something.”