Career story of Kalpana Chawla – The first Indian woman in space

By : Swati Sharma |
kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman to fly in space is remembered as an extraordinary woman, an inspiration, and a role model. Courageous, dedicated, and an independent woman, Kalpana dreamt to touch the stars and walk over the moon. She set her eyes on space and achieved her dream and won the race of life and became the real champion. Let’s take a look at the life story of brave woman Kalpana Chawla whose achievements continue to inspire many.

Who named her “Kalpana”?

Before starting the epic life story of Kalpana Chawla, here I am going to tell you a point that Kalpana was a highly imaginative child. You would be surprised to know that she chose her own name. Her parents nicknamed her Montu. During her admission to Tagore Bal Niketan, a school in her vicinity, the principal asked her name. Her aunt replied: “We have three names in our mind – Kalpana, Jyotsna and Sunaina” and yet to finalize. The principal asked her to pick a name, the little girl replied, ‘Kalpana.’ In Indian language, Kalpana means “imagination”.

Early Life and Education

An ordinary Indian girl, with her extraordinary courage and ambition, Kalpana Chawla was born on 17th March 1962, in Karnal Haryana. She was the youngest child of Sanjyoti Chawla and Banarasi Lal Chawla. Her ancestors being refugees of the partition, originally from Multan district of West Punjab (now Pakistan), Kalpana’s parents came to Karnal in Haryana during partition. Her father Banarasi Lal Chawla took up several petty jobs (working as a cloth seller, a street hawker and even a metal fabricator) to support his growing joint family of sixteen members. Finally, he set up a tyre manufacturing business.

She grew up in a typical male dominant society but her mother, Sanyogita was quite supportive and liberal, and she encouraged her daughter Kalpana to do something great. During hot summer days when the family slept on the roof of their small house in an isolated corner of Model Town colony, she would watch the night sky. During the night, looking at the twinkling stars she thought what they are and if it was ever possible to reach them. She inquired about space but would rarely receive a satisfactory answer. She went for a ride to flying club in their town, one of the twelve flying clubs in India at the time. It is here that a young Kalpana Chawla, the iconic name in the world of astronauts got her first taste of flying and from there, her passion for it only grew stronger.

At a time when attending school was a rarity for girls, Kalpana completed her schooling from Tagore Baal Niketan Karnal, Kalpana completed her B.Tech in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College Chandigarh, in the year 1982. In 1983, She began the new chapter of her life and tied Nuptial knot with Jean-Parrie Harrison, who was a flying instructor and an aviation author. She migrated to the United States and earned an M.SC degree in Aerospace Engineering. She went on to get a second degree in 1986 and a PhD in Aerospace Engineering in 1988 from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Joined NASA – First and Second Space Mission

After completing a doctorate, Chawla got a job at NASA’s Ames Research Centre, California (ARC) and with her hard work and dedication, she got promoted to the rank of Vice President of Overset Methods, Inc at NASA Research Center. She made Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research on Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing concepts and gained certification for a pilot license for the seaplanes, multi-engine air place, and glider. Kalpana also became a Certificated Flight Instructor for gliders and aeroplanes.

Recognition from NASA – Kalpana began her first Space mission on November 19, 1997, as she flew with six other astronauts to space on Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87. She brought respect to the country by becoming the first Indian born woman to fly in space, and the second Indian to be in Space after Rakesh Sharma. Kalpana travelled over 10.4 million miles in 252 orbits of the Earth, logging more than 372 hours in space. After returning, she has conferred with the prestigious Congressional Space Medal of Honor NASA Space Flight Medal and NASA Distinguished Service Medal apart from other awards.

Her second space mission on Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-107 on 16th January 2003 was her last travelling experience into space. While the shuttle was returning back to Earth, it malfunctioned and disintegrated on 1st February 2003, which caused the death of Kalpana, along with six other crew members David Brown, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, Commander Rick Husband, astronaut Michael Anderson, astronaut Laurel Clark, and pilot William McCool. The ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-107 had blown up disintegrated over Texas during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all the seven people on board, including Our Pride, Kalpana, she will always be remembered for her courage and hard work.

“The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.” – Kalpana Chawla

She was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. Given the scale of her achievements, the kind of recognition and honour she has received since her death is no surprise. From asteroids to hills on Mars to satellites, several entities in space have been named after her. Scores of awards and scholarships have been constituted in her honour.

Kalpana Chawla epitomizes struggle, strength, dedication, hard work and success. Kalpana’s career story gives us a lesson that we should do the things of our interest because it makes us passionate and zealous towards our work. As the first Indian woman and only the second Indian in history to fly in space, Kalpana believes that there is a Kalpana in each of you. You only have to find it!