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UTA Remembers Kalpana Chawla, Columbia Crew 15 Years Later

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Fifteen years ago, on February 1, 2003, seven astronauts perished when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry after 16 days in orbit, 16 minutes prior to its scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Included in that group was Kalpana Chawla, one of UTA’s most celebrated graduates and the first Indian-born woman to fly in space.

Kalpana ChawlaChawla earned her master of science degree in aerospace engineering from UTA in 1984. She was the second UTA graduate to become an astronaut, following in the footsteps of Robert L. Stewart (MSAE ’72).

Chawla’s path to becoming an astronaut began in Karnal, India. She knew that she wanted to be an aerospace engineer at an early age, influenced by watching the planes from the local flying clubs and by her father, who took her to the flying club and got her rides in a plane and a glider that the club owned.

She graduated from Tagore School in Karnal in 1976 and earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from India's Punjab Engineering College in 1982. Then, she moved to the United States to attend graduate school at UTA.

There, Chawla was involved in an experimental research program to develop a novel propulsion system using a cross-flow fan installed in the wing of an aircraft. Don Wilson, was one of her professors and mentors in UTA’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department.

Space Shuttle Columbia's Crew“I remember Kalpana as initially being a quiet, rather shy, very young lady – somewhat intimidated by her new surroundings. But she quickly adapted to life in the U.S., and I came to know her as a high-spirited, talented, highly-motivated person with a burning desire to excel,” Wilson said.

After earning her master’s degree, she moved to Boulder, Colo., to pursue a doctorate in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado, which she earned in 1988.

Chawla’s career with NASA began in 1988 when she went to work for the Ames Research Center in California. Her work centered on powered-lift computational fluid dynamics, which involves aircraft like the Harrier. She left Ames in 1993 to join Overset Methods Inc. in Los Altos, Calif., as vice president and research scientist. She headed a team of researchers specializing in simulation of moving multiple body problems. Her work at Overset resulted in development and implementation of efficient techniques to perform aerodynamic optimization. Her successful career outside of NASA was brief, however, as the agency selected her as an astronaut candidate in December 1994, and she reported to Johnson Space Center in March 1995.

Kalpana Chawla in pumpkin suit during trainingHer interests included hiking and backpacking, and she also enjoyed flying. She held a certificated flight instructor's license with airplane and glider ratings, commercial pilot’s licenses for single- and multi-engine land and seaplanes and gliders, and an instrument rating for airplanes.

Astronaut Office Chief Kent Rominger said that Chawla loved her work and was respected by her colleagues.

“Kalpana, or K.C. to her friends, was admired personally for her extraordinary kindness and technically for her strive for perfection,” he said. “She had a terrific sense of humor, 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?’"

Kalpana was motivated by people who are giving it their all. “I think inspiration and tied with it is motivation,” she once said. “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."

Kalpana Chawla's NASA mission patches, STS-87 (Columbia) at left, STS-107 (Columbia) at right“None of our astronauts traveled a longer path to space than Kalpana Chawla,” U.S. President George W. Bush said of Chawla at the memorial service for the Columbia astronauts on February 4, 2003. “She left India as a student but she would see the nation of her birth, all of it, from hundreds of miles above.”

“When the sad news reached her hometown, an administrator at her high school recalled, ‘She always said she wanted to reach the stars. She went there and beyond.’”

On May 3, 2010, the College of Engineering dedicated a display to Chawla’s memory on the west side of the Nedderman Hall atrium. Nedderman Hall houses the College’s administrative offices, as well as the Civil Engineering and Electrical Engineering department. The display includes one of Chawla's flight suits, several photographs, and historical and biographical information about her and the space program. Also included in the display is a flag flown over Johnson Space Center during the memorial for the fallen astronauts from the Columbia disaster. Jean-Pierre Harrison, Chawla's husband, donated the items.

(Excerpted in part from NASA Archives)