She lived her dream
Her death was tragic but her life was testimony to her fighting spirit. DEEPA KANDASWAMY remembers astronaut Kalpana Chawla.
NOT long ago, woman as astronauts would have been inconceivable. And an Indian woman at that?
When I look at the night sky, I know women have been up there like Kalpana Chawla. She was there for over a month, travelling over 6.5 million miles in space and in 252 orbits. She has walked in space and, alas, died there but at least lived her dream.
Like a falling star, the "Columbia Shuttle" plunged downward on February 1, 2003. Many hoped for a miracle that somehow the crew would have survived and Kalpana would return home. Most of those stood upon green earth, gazing upward saw the broken trail of the craft as it spread and scattered and rained upon central Texas.
Deirdre Moen who works in Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, the U.S., recalls, "Kalpana Chawla was beautiful, talented and kind. She was my hero and I was stunned when I heard the news of her death."
Kalpana Chawla was born in the small town of Karnal, Haryana to a traditional middle class family. The youngest of the four children, Kalpana studied at the Tagore School, but was different from her siblings and other children. Her love for the skies and space began when she was a little girl in Haryana. Her school projects and papers were all about the stars, planets, and outer space. Teachers often found her sketching airplanes instead of playing with friends. While her businessman father encouraged her to join the Flying Club, he was horrified when she chose flying as a career. He wanted her to become a "respectable" doctor. Kalpana managed to win over her father's resistance and her family's objections to become Punjab Engineering College's first woman aeronautical engineer when she graduated in 1982.
When her father learned she wanted to go to the United States for postgraduate studies, he put his foot down. Her parents wanted her to get married and settle down. Again Kalpana prevailed. Once in the U.S., she got her masters from the University of Texas, Arlington and a doctorate from the University of Colorado. It was there she met her husband, French flying instructor and aviation writer Jean-Pierre Harrison.
After graduating in 1988, with her Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering, Kalpana was hired by MCAT Institute, San Jose, California, as a Research Scientist to research at NASA Ames Research Center, California.
In 1993, Dr. Kalpana Chawla joined Overset Methods Inc., Los Altos, California, as Vice President and research scientist. In 1994, she was one of the 19 people selected from 2,962 applicants by NASA to become an astronaut. Kalpana reported to the Johnson Space Center in March 1995.
On November 19, 1997, she became the first person of Indian descent to fly in an American space shuttle for 15 days and on her return she was most overwhelmed by the fact that it took only 90 minutes to circle the planet. "Just 90 minutes! Even though I had known that, it was an overpowering sensation to know how small this place is. How very fragile it is," she said.
Kalpana and her husband Jean-Pierre Harrison loved aerial aerobatics, hiking, backpacking and reading. Though she was now an American citizen, Kalpana didn't forget her home. Every year, she sponsored two talented children from her town to visit NASA. She also funded many young girls' education.
Her second space mission was widely publicised and plans made to celebrate on her return. The return never happened, as the shuttle broke apart more than 200,000 feet above central Texas, 16 minutes before it was to land in Florida.
At 41, Kalpana Chawla-Harrison became a part of space. But even in death she gave back to the world. Based on her will, a $3,00,000 fund was established environmental conservation projects around the world. The "Kalpana Chawla Fund for Environmental Stewardship"" has been set up with the National Audubon Society. The Government of Tamil Nadu instituted the "Kalpana Chawla Award" to be given annually on Independence Day for bravery and service.
However, Kalpana's life's achievements made hundreds of young people, especially Indians, believe that even those without wings may one day fly above and beyond, exploring space "the final frontier".
Little girls will keep on dreaming, just like little boys. It's why we continue with manned space flights, even though machines are more efficient. We are a species born to dream and what is a grander dream than taking flight to soar beyond our planet, to see the fragile blue ball hanging in the heavens, making us understand that we are all passengers on planet Earth?
Kalpana Chawla is now a part of our dreams. Her tale is written in the skies in joy and tears, living and daring, in flame and death. While it is tragic that she died, what is important is to remember is that she lived her dream and not to forget her message. Do your bit to protect the fragile planet we all inhabit, and see to making it ever more possible that more and more children will be able to live their dreams, especially in places like rural India.
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