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Kalpana Chawla: the First Woman of Indian origin to go to Space

Kalpana Chawla smiling for the cameraKalpana Chawla spent her whole life chasing her dreams of being an astronaut. In 1997, she made history as the first woman of Indian origin to go to Space. Kalpana Chawla created opportunities, shattered glass ceilings, and spearheaded groundbreaking research for NASA.

It’s the 1960s, and it’s uncommon for women and girls in Karnal, India to receive an education. But from her earliest years, Kalpana Chawla shows an obsession with flying and space. Her mother advocates for her to go to school, and she excels.

The youngest of four children, Kalpana is an all-star student, committed to academics–science particular–above all else. She finishes high school then studies aeronautics at Punjab Engineering college. When she can’t advance any further in India’s education system, she emigrates to the US, knowing she’ll stop at nothing to become an astronaut.

It’s 1981, Kalpana is 20 years old and new to America. She earns her Master’s Degree in Texas, then her Doctorate in Colorado, and by the time she’s 26, she’s recruited to NASA as a research scientist.  3 years later, Kalpana naturalizes as a US citizen so she can apply to the NASA Astronaut Corps.

While training in the rigorous space mission program, Kalpana remains committed to education and creating opportunities. Kalpana starts a program providing two students from her former school in India with a visit to NASA each year. Meanwhile, her research is published in technical journals and increasingly cited in conference publications. Kalpana becomes increasingly vital to the aeronautical field and by the time she’s 32 years old, Kalpana has completed her training and is selected for her first flight.

Kalpana Chawla goes to space in December 1997, the first Indian-born woman to do so. While on a 15-day mission, orbiting the earth 252 times, Kalpana records videos documenting her work. She describes, “every once in a while, city lights peep through the clouds. It’s very much like a storybook.”

Upon return to Earth, Kalpana is one of seven people selected for another mission: the STS-107 on the Columbia Space Shuttle. they launch in early 2003, and Kalpana and the crew conduct 80 experiments over 16 days. After a successful mission, the shuttle returns to Earth on a February morning, set to land at the Kennedy Space Center. But just moments before landing in Texas, the shuttle malfunctions and breaks apart. All seven crew members–Kalpana Chawla, William McCool, Laurel Clark, David Brown, Ilan Ramon (the first Israeli astronaut), Michael P. Anderson, and Rick Husband–are tragically killed in the accident. Kalpana is 41 years old.

Over the course of Kalpana Chawla’s two missions, she logged 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space. After her death, Kalpana Chawla was award the Congressional Medal of Honor for her history-shaping contributions to the field of aeronautics. Today, there are university buildings, scholarship funds, and even a NASA supercomputer named after her.