I guess there would not be any Indian who does not know who Kalpana Chawla is, if I am not gravely mistaken! And, what does come to your mind when we utter the word Kalpana Chawla? It has to be stars, constellations and space, isn’t it?
This is her story and by the end of it, I am sure you are going to get more inspiration than from any movie that you might have seen in the past. As they say, “truth is stranger than fiction”, the story of this ordinary girl who started her journey from a small village in Haryana, India called Karnal dreamt real big and yes reached for the stars, and quite literally at that!
The known facts about this inspirational woman are that she was an astronaut and a space shuttle mission specialist for Columbia STS- 107 where at the penultimate moment when they were re entering the atmosphere of earth, their space shuttle disintegrated into pieces killing seven crew members on board including the world icon, Kalpana Chawla herself.
Coming from a humble family environment where Kalpana Chawla was the youngest of the four siblings, she was always way “different” than the other kids on the block. She used to never like ironing her clothes, cut her hairs her own way and learned karate as a kid. While in school, her fascination had always reflected in terms of the stars and the sky while her major interest lied in flying, her idol being Md. J.R.D. Tata, the first pilot of India.
In the pursuit to follow her dreams, Kalpana Chawla first went on to earn the Bachelors in Aeronautical Engineering degree from India and then found herself studying at the University of Texas in the Master’s course. Later on, she even acquired a Doctorate degree in the same field from the University of Colorado and the same year she married the love of her life Jean Pierre Harrison.
With the Ph. D degree in her hand, Kalpana Chawla got the opportunity to work with the NASA Ames Research Center in San Francisco Bay area and slowly by the year 1984 became one of the people chosen for the astronaut program.
The big day came her way in the year 1996 when she got to travel into the unknown of space for the first time. Just after her launch she was reported to have said, “When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system”.
While she experienced the emptiness and the weightlessness of space, she was recorded saying in an interview that “You are just your intelligence” as maybe into the space, nothing else really matter. This was her first space mission where she was a part of a six member crew that flew in the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS- 87 which started on 19th of November, 1997.
As inspirational this can be not only for any Indian woman, as for any human being on the Earth, Kalpana Chawla was indeed a part of a different league while she became the first Indian born woman and yes, the second Indian person to fly into the unknown of space, followed by only Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian cosmonaut who flew to space in the year 1984.
While she made history with the earlier achievement, she also had the privilege of travelling as far as 10.4 million kilometer in to space which is an approximate 252 times orbit around Earth comprising of a whopping 372 hours in space!
After her first space expedition Kalpana Chawla was asked how it was being a woman in her field and her answer would definitely inspire you to reach for your dreams, however impossible they may seem initially. She said, “I really never, ever thought, while pursuing my studies or doing anything else that I was a woman or a person from a small city or a different country. I pretty much had my dreams like anyone else and I followed them. And people who were around me, fortunately, always encouraged me and said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, carry on’.”
After the successful voyage of the first space shuttle mission that the “Shining Star of India”, Kalpana Chawla was a part of, she was chosen for yet another space journey serving as a mission specialist for the Space Shuttle flight Columbia STS- 107 in the year 2000. Their space mission got delayed repeatedly due to technical glitches and scheduling conflicts but at last Kalpana Chawla got to taste the pleasure of the space when their seven member crew team started the s[pace journey on 16th of January, 2003.
While Kalpana Chawla and her team were aboard the ill fated Columbia STS- 107 space shuttle, the team were able to conduct over eighty experiments pertaining to space science advanced technologies and the earth and were set to return back on the 1st of February, 2003 after completing a total of 252 orbits of Earth over a period of two weeks.
All seemed right on that day when the space shuttle Columbia STS- 107 entered the earth’s atmosphere and while it intended to land well at the Kennedy Space Center, something went gravely wrong. While the shuttle was making the final descent, just about 16 minutes prior to the landing, the space shuttle exploded into pieces causing the death of all the crew members on board along with the inspirational space woman, Kalpana Chawla.
This was the second major disaster for a space shuttle program to have ever happened after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger took place in the year 1986. While the Indian government acknowledged her contributions to the world, shortly after her untimely death, India renamed its first weather satellite as “Kalpana 1” in her honor.
While for millions of women across the planet, she is the perfect role model, who started off from a small town in Haryana, India and touched the skies, it is indeed also as great an inspiration for any young Indian to learn from. A role model to the core of the word that she was, while aboard the shuttle, Columbia she dedicated a message to the students of her college in Chandigarh. She said, “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get onto it…. .Wishing you a great journey”
Kalpana, we want to shout out loud that you are immortal in the hearts of each one of us who strive to achieve their dreams. The permanent shining star of India, you are up there on the sky where you actually belong..