Kalpana Chawla (1962-2003) was an Indian-American aeronautical engineer who became a NASA astronaut, flying on the Space Shuttle between 1997 and 2003. She was aboard the shuttle Columbia in 2003 when it was tragically destroyed during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
– Early Life and First Career –
Chawla was born in India to a Punjabi family in Model Town Karnal, along with two sisters and a brother. She had an early interest in aviation, and married a pilot instructor, Jean-Pierre Harrison. She immigrated to the U.S., where she was naturalized in 1990.
Before moving to America, Chawla had already studied aeronautical engineering at the Punjab Engineering College in India. However, she continued her studies in the U.S. at the graduate level in Texas, and then at the PhD level in Boulder, Colorado. It was this academic work which qualified her to earn a job at NASA’s Ames Research Center, studying vertical takeoff and landing technology for aircraft. However, Chawla had continued her interest in aviation, earning commercial and flight instructor’s pilot licenses privately, and continued to hope for more.
– Astronaut –
In 1994, several years after getting her job at Ames and after she had briefly moved to a private aviation research contractor, Chawla’s application to the astronaut corps was accepted. Ironically, her first flight into space, in 1998, was aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, the same spacecraft on which she would fly again on its fateful trip in 2003. This made her the first Indian woman to enter space, though not the first person of Indian descent – that honour belonged to an Indian Air Force officer who was invited onto a Soyuz flight by the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Chawla was responsible for launching the Columbia’s payload, a satellite which ultimately malfunctioned due to a software glitch.
In January 2003, Chawla blasted off for a second time as one of the seven astronauts assigned to the Space Shuttle Columbia on mission STS-107. Tragically, as it returned to Earth on February 1, the Columbia broke up above the state of Texas, killing all of those onboard. The investigation after the disaster revealed that a large chunk of insulation attached to the large external fuel tank used during space shuttle launches had broken off and slammed into the Columbia’s left wing, dislodging the special panels attached there to bear the extreme heat of re-entry. The resulting hole in the wing caused failure of critical components as the Shuttle descended towards the Earth, ultimately causing the entire spacecraft to break apart.
After the flight, Chawla was posthumously decorated with the Congressional Space Medal of Honor as well as two NASA service medals.