Born in Punjab, India, Dr. Kalpana Chawla was always interested in flying. Earning a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College she moved to the United States to continue her studies.
Attending the University of Texas for her master’s degree in aerospace engineering, she continued her studies in the same field earning a doctorate from the University of Colorado. Hired at NASA Ames Research Center her work focused on aerodynamic optimization.
Three years after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, she was among the 15th class of potential astronauts and began working in shuttle support positions at NASA. Selected as a member of the crew aboard the Columbia, Chawla was the first Indian-American women to travel to space and would spend over 376 hours in space during this mission. Responsible for the deployment of the Spartan Satellite to study the outer layer of the sun there were technical issues with the satellite and two other astronauts had to retrieve it after it had been launched. During an investigation at NASA it was shown the Chawla had performed her duties correctly and the failure had been due to errors in software interfaces.
Chawla’s second flight into space would tragically be her last. Launching January 16, 2003, STS-107 aboard the shuttle Columbia was a science and research mission where the crew conducted about 80 experiments. During take-off a large portion of the craft’s external tank broke off and struck the shuttle, causing damage to one of its wings. After a successful mission the Columbia reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and the damage to the wing allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter the wing and destroy the inner structure causing the shuttle to break apart during reentry. All seven astronauts on board were killed just sixteen minutes before the scheduled end of the mission.
Honored by her peers for her work at NASA during her lifetime, after her death she was again honored including being awarded a Congressional Space Medal of Honor, a NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the naming of a medical college in India.
Written by Angela Goad