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In Remembrance: KALPANA CHAWLA- A Trailblazer Indeed

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March 2003
In Remembrance: KALPANA CHAWLA- A Trailblazer Indeed

Her passion was flying! She loved to shoot across the sky, savoring the view from a plane or from a space shuttle, a free spirit thrilled to escape earthly bounds. From up there, the world was one ? and that?s the way Kalpana Chawla liked it.

?She believed in one energy,? said her brother Girish Chawla of Alpharetta, Ga. ?She was very spiritual, but not confined to any organized religion.? She once told an interviewer that flying was her religion. ?Religion is something which gives you peace of mind,? she said. ?And to me flying brings tremendous peace and satisfaction.? It was a passion that dominated her life, from the space and aircraft pictures decorating her home to her marriage to Jean Pierre Harrison, her former flight instructor.

?She was so obsessed with it that when people visited her, she?d want to share whatever she could with them,? said Girish?s wife, Harvinder Gill, recalling all the space-related books and videos in Kalpana?s home. ?Even with kids, if they would ask, she would explain things in minute details to them.?

Her career followed a vertical flight path, soaring past obstacles in a jet stream of brilliance and determination, propelling her to the zenith of her profession. She became the first India-born woman in space, an inspiration to countless boys and girls, a source of pride to millions of adults.

When the Columbia space shuttle broke apart on February 1, just minutes before its scheduled landing, the world lost seven heroes, five men and two women who risked their lives for human advancement.

Indians lost not just a role model, but a trailblazer, a young woman whose success carried more promise for her generation than a hundred cricket wins, a thousand Bollywood hits.

Her motherland joined America in mourning her loss, naming a weather satellite and at least one school after her. Her name will doubtless be attached to a raft of awards and scholarships, her memory kept alive in history books and biographies. But some of this recognition should have come earlier. It shouldn?t have taken a tragedy for everyone to appreciate the magnitude of her accomplishments. It shouldn?t have taken a tragedy for India to realize that despite becoming a U.S. citizen, she never forgot her roots, never denied her heritage.

Each year since 1998, she arranged for two students from her school, ?Tagore Bal Niketan? in Karnal, Haryana, to attend a summer space program conducted by the International Space School Foundation in Houston. One of the highlights was dinner at her home, Indian food that the famous astronaut or her husband cooked. She urged the students to follow their dreams, even if others discouraged them.

Her success had made it easier for them to dream. She had shown that the dreams of an Indian child, however fantastic, can become reality. ?For me, it?s really farfetched to have thought about it and made it,? she once said. ?It?s almost like having won a lottery or something.? Indeed, the odds against her were astronomical. The world has more lottery winners than astronauts. And with no Indian astronauts to inspire her during childhood, it might have seemed more realistic to dream about becoming prime minister.

Even to attend Punjab Engineering College in the late 1970s was a challenge. She had to overcome the widespread notion that engineering was a man?s domain. Her father wanted her to be a doctor or teacher. Instead, with her mother?s blessing, she studied aeronautical engineering at Chandigarh, the only woman to do so.

When she came to America in 1982, she again rebuffed the wishes of her father and other relatives. It would be years before they realized the strength of her ambition, the depth of her talent. She earned a master?s degree at the University of Texas and a doctorate in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado, then worked on aircraft physics at NASA?s Ames Research Center.

?She was very hardworking,? her brother Girish said. ?I think she was married to her profession, though she always had time for her family.? What illustrates her affinity and commitment to her calling is the fact that about 4,000 people applied to NASA?s astronaut program in 1994 and only 20 were picked, including the pride of Karnal. Just three years later, she completed her first space flight, achieving her longtime dream.

She deserved more recognition, but as humble as she was, she didn?t expect it. ?She never really cared for all that,? Harvinder said. ?It never really mattered to her.? Asked in a 1998 interview how she felt about being the first Indian woman in space, Kalpana replied, ?I never truly thought about being first or second. This is just something I wanted to do. If you want to do something, what does it matter where you are ranked??


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