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Kalpana Chawla



On February 1, 2003, the Columbian space shuttle STS - 107 exploded as it entered the earth's atmosphere, perishing the entire crew of six. Among them was the young Indian-born American astronaut, Kalpana Chawla. A girl who had always dreamt of the moon and the stars had herself become a star. Not only did she achieve her dreams but she also led her life with the highest sense of values and purpose in every respect. Her life history is the greatest inspiration for the youths of today.

Humble beginnings

Kalpana Chawla was born in India's Karnal district of Haryana. Her parents had seen great hardships and were in dire straits during partition but had struggled to pull themselves up. However, they were able to provide good education to Kalpana and her two siblings.


In everything that Kalpana did, she broke stereotypes. She was the only girl at that time to join the aeronautical engineering stream at the Punjab Engineering College. She fought and overcame opposition from her parents and migrated to USA for further studies. Here, she joined the University of Texas to pursue her Masters and later, University of Boulder, Colorado for her doctorate. This was admirable, since few children at such a young age are so clear-minded about their ambitions. Furthermore, even fewer have the will to pursue them with such single-minded dedication that Kalpana did.


Global citizen

Kalpana's sights were so completely focused on her goals that even her small town trappings were no constraint for her. She crossed continents and high seas to an alien culture. She was truly a global citizen, an earth person who wanted to explore her neighbourhood, the outer space!


Making the impossible possible

From a very young age, JRD Tata and his maiden flight had captured her imagination. She too dreamt of flying and reaching out to the stars and planets. Her fondness for flying saw her joining the local flying club. She acquired a certified flight instructor's license and commercial pilot's license for single- and multiple-engine land and seaplanes. She also became skilled in aerobatics. Finally in 1994, her efforts paid when out of 2962 applicants for a space mission, NASA chose 19 and Kalpana's name figured in it.


Kalpana had worked hard towards it. She would say: "If you look up to the top of the mountain, then climbing it may seem an impossible task. But if you focus on the next step and take it one step at a time, then you certainly will be able to do it." That is exactly what she did. She very dedicatedly charted out her course, stuck to the path and took it in stride, one step at a time.


Spacewoman par excellence

In 1994, Chawla began her career as an astronaut with NASA. In 1997, she went on her maiden sortie in the space shuttle STS - 87 Columbia as a mission specialist. She got embroiled in an unfortunate controversy. She was blamed for letting go of a science satellite during an experiment that had to be retrieved later. But upon subsequent investigations, she was honourably absolved of these charges. This was underscored when she was chosen for the second time round, for the next Columbia mission STS- 107 as a flight engineer and mission specialist.

In all she logged 30 days, 14 hours and 54 minutes in space.

For the second mission, she had carried with her CDs of her favourite artistes like Abida Parveen, Pt. Ravi Shankar and Deep Purple, among others. She planned to autograph them in space and gift it as mementoes to these artistes. But that was not to be. Sixteen minutes short of the scheduled landing, Kalpana Chawla became one with the cosmos she so loved.


The ultimate tribute

In her memory, the Indian Prime Minister, Mr. A.B.Vajpayee renamed the weather satellite launched in 2002, Metstat as Kalpana-1. Deep Purple scripted and sang, 'Contact Lost' as a tribute to her. These and many such small gestures round the world have kept her memory alive. But the real tribute, the youngsters can pay her, is to enliven the 'Kalpanas' (imagination) in them.


Read also: Kalpana - Woman Of Many Parts

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