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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla -- Aerospace Engineer, NASA Astronaut

The first Indian American astronaut, and the first Indian-born woman in space; died with 6 fellow crew members in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster on February 1, 2003

Born in the small town of Karnal, India in 1961, she became hooked on the excitement of flight when her father (a leading industrialist in town) arranged for her first plane ride in a small craft through the local flying club. Kalpana Chawla would later take flying lessons before immigrating to America where she would become a certified FAA flight instructor, a talented aerospace engineer, and a NASA astronaut.

Inquisitive, bright and shy, Kalpana was the youngest of four children. The name Kalpana means "idea" or "imagination." Her full name is pronounced CULL-puh-na CHAV-la, though she often went by the nickname "K.C." She moved to the United States in 1982 and later became an American citizen while completing her graduate studies in aerospace engineering and soon began working at NASA's Ames Research Center, working on power-lift computational fluid dynamics.

In 1994, Kalpana was selected as an NASA astronaut candidate. After a year of training, she became a crew representative for the Astronaut Office EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches, where she worked with Robotic Situational Awareness Displays and tested software for the space shuttles.

Why She's Important: Kalpana Chawla became the first Indian American astronaut, and the first Indian-born woman in space in November 1997 when she flew as a mission specialist as part of the six-astronaut crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87. In this flight, she also became the second Indian person to fly in space, following cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma who flew in 1984. On her first mission, Kalpana served as the primary operator of the spacecraft's robotic arm and traveled over 10.4 million miles in 252 orbits of the earth, logging more than 372 hours in space.

In 2000 she was selected for her second flight, this time as part of the crew of the Columbia Space Shuttle mission STS-107. This mission was repeatedly delayed due to scheduling conflicts and technical problems, such as the July 2002 discovery of cracks in the shuttle engine flow liners. On January 16, 2003, however this seven-crewmember flight finally lifted off, returning Kalpana once more to space. Her responsibilities included the microgravity experiments, for which the crew conducted nearly 80 science studies that explored earth and space science, advanced technology development, and astronaut health and safety.

And then on February 1, tragedy struck as the crew and spacecraft attempted to return to Earth after the 16-day mission. As millions on TV watched the shuttle's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, hot gas began streaming over and into the shuttle's wing, causing it to break up. The unstable craft rolled and bucked, pitching the astronauts about. Less than a minute passed before the ship depressurized, killing the crew. The shuttle broke up over Texas and Louisiana before plunging into the ground. An intensive investigation later determined that the tragedy was caused by the absence of a briefcase-sized piece of insulation on the exterior of the shuttle which had broken off at launch time and damaged the thermal protection system of the shuttle's wing -- the shield that protects it from heat during re-entry. The accident was the second major disaster for the space shuttle program, following the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger.

The entire crew of seven was killed. In addition to Kalpana, the crew included: Commander Rick D. Husband; Pilot William C. McCool; Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson; Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut; and Mission Specialists David M. Brown and Laurel B. Clark.

Other Achievements: In addition to her accomplishments as an astronaut, Kalpana was also a skilled pilot and FAA-certified flight instructor, being qualified to fly and instruct in single and multi-engine commercial airplanes, as well as seaplanes and gliders.

Education: She completed her Bachelor's of Engineering degree in Aeronautical Engineering at Punjab Engineering College at Chandigarh, India in 1982; her Master's of Science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984; her second Master's of Science degree in 1986, and her Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering in 1988 from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Honors: Numerous posthumous honors and tributes have been bestowed on the crew of the ill-fated Columbia flight, including the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

The many additional tributes bestowed on Kalpana -- to keep her memory and love of education and spaceflight alive -- include: the construction in 2012 of India's Kalpana Chawla Government Medical College by the cities of Karnal and Haryana, India (her birthplace and first home town respectively); the Kalpana Chawla International Space University Scholarship Fund, established in 2010, to support Indian student participation in international space education programs; Kalpana Chawla Memorial Scholarship program instituted by the Indian Students Association at the University of Texas at El Paso in 2005 for meritorious graduate students; the Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Recent Alumni Award at the University of Colorado; India's Prime Minister announced in February 2003 that the meteorological series of satellites, METSAT, was to be renamed as "KALPANA"; 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City has been renamed 74th Street Kalpana Chawla Way in her honor, and the University of Texas at Arlington (where Chawla obtained a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering) opened a dormitory named in her honor, Kalpana Chawla Hall, in 2004.

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