Kalpana Chawla: 1961-2003
Each day before she settled down to sleep on her first space shuttle mission, astronaut Kalpana Chawla pressed close to the window and gazed in amazement at her home planet.
“You see the continents go by, the thunderstorms shimmering in the clouds, the city lights at night,” she told UTA Magazine in 1998. “Earth is very beautiful. I wish everyone could see it.”
It was on her return trip to Earth during STS-107, Dr. Chawla’s second space mission, that the UTA alumna and six other astronauts died Feb. 1 when their craft broke apart over North Texas.
Born July 1, 1961, in Karnal, India, Dr. Chawla earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from India’s Punjab Engineering College in 1982, a master of science in aerospace engineering from UTA in 1984 and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado in 1988.
“I came to know her as a highly spirited, talented and highly motivated individual with a burning desire to excel,” said Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department Chairman Don Wilson, who served as Dr. Chawla’s thesis adviser. “It is a deep and personal loss for my wife and me. We got to know her more than just as a student.”
Soon after she arrived in Texas, Dr. Chawla married American flight instructor Jean Pierre Harrison and became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
She began working at NASA Ames Research Center in 1988 and joined Overset Methods, Inc., in Los Altos, Calif., in 1993 as vice president and research scientist. In December 1994, she reported to Johnson Space Center in Houston as an astronaut candidate.
She completed a year of training and evaluation and was named crew representative to work technical issues for the Astronaut Office EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches. In November 1996, she was assigned as a mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on STS-87 aboard the Columbia.
“You wait for the magic day when they call you and say you are assigned to a flight,” she said in 1998. The call came again a few years later when she was assigned as a mission specialist on STS-107.
Dr. Chawla, the first Indian-born woman to travel into space, was a heroine in her native country, where her photograph appeared regularly on the front pages of publications. Her achievements are even more remarkable given the limits imposed on women in her native culture.
“She was one of the proudest daughters of India,” Taiyab Kundawala, past-president of the India Association of North Texas, told The Dallas Morning News shortly after the Columbia tragedy. One Indian newspaper called her “India’s Space Girl.”
Venkat Devarajan, a UTA electrical engineering professor and native of India, says Dr. Chawla’s accomplishments have inspired women worldwide but particularly in India.
“I understand that already there are scores of Indian women who have become pilots on commercial aircraft and serve as fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force,” he said. “In conservative India, this is a significant trailblazing trend.”
Despite the intense training required of an astronaut, Dr. Chawla, known as K.C. to friends and colleagues, is remembered for her sense of humor. On both shuttle flights, she wore a UTA T-shirt emblazoned with “UT Arlington Aerospace Engineering” on one side and “As a matter of fact, I am a rocket scientist” on the other.
Hundreds attended a memorial service Feb. 5 in Nedderman Hall. Tributes included the establishment of a scholarship in Dr. Chawla’s name. Contributions may be sent to the Kalpana Chawla Scholarship, The University of Texas at Arlington, Box 19198, Arlington, TX 76019.