Asian-American and Pacific Islander Transportation History: Dr. Kalpana Chawla, Astronaut

Kalpana Chawla, an American astronaut who became the first woman of Indian descent to travel into space, was born in the city of Karnal in northern India in 1962. As a child, she demonstrated a strong enthusiasm for human flight by drawing pictures of airplanes. She also visited flying clubs in that region of India and watched airplanes take off into the skies above. “Every so often we’d ask my dad if we could get a ride in one of these planes,” Chawla later recalled. “And, he did take us into the flying club and get us a ride in the Pushpak [a type of monoplane] and a glider that the flying club had.”

Chawla earned a B.S. in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College in the Indian city and union territory of Chandigarh in 1982. She then moved to the United States, graduating from the University of Texas at Arlington with an M.S. in aerospace engineering in 1984. Chawla continued her education at the University of Colorado Denver, receiving a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in 1988. That same year, she first worked at NASA. Her responsibilities at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California included performing computational fluid dynamics research on vertical and short take-off and landing concepts.

In 1993, Chawla joined the California-based company Overset Methods as vice president and a research scientist. Her work for that company was focused on simulations of multiple-body aerodynamic problems. By this time in her life, Chawla was also a certified flight instructor for airplanes and gliders as well as commercial pilot licenses for single and multi-engine airplanes, seaplanes, and gliders.

After becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991, Chawla applied for NASA’s astronaut program. She was accepted into the program in 1994 and reported to the Johnson Space Center as an astronaut candidate the following year.

Chawla’s pioneering spaceflight occurred in 1997 as a member of the six-person crew on the Space Shuttle Columbia mission STS-87. The mission focused on observing the Sun’s outer atmospheric layers and also how the weightless environment in space affects physical processes. As a result of this flight, Chawla traveled 6.5 million miles (10.5 million kilometers) and logged more than 376 hours in space.

In 2000, Chawla was selected for her second spaceflight. She was one of the seven crew members for the Space Shuttle Columbia mission STS-107 that took off from Kennedy Space Center on January 16, 2003. Chawla and her fellow crew members performed approximately 80 experiments involving such research priorities as earth and space science, advanced technology development, and astronaut health and safety. Altogether, this mission encompassed 6.6 miles (10.6 kilometers) of flight time in space.

Tragically, however, Chawla and the other astronauts were killed when Columbia disintegrated during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere on February 1. A subsequent investigation found that the cause of this disintegration towards the end of the mission was a piece of foam that had broken off during the launch. This piece of foam damaged the thermal protection system of Columbia on the leading edge of that orbiter’s left wing. When reentry was taking place over Texas, the damaged wing gradually overheated and came apart; this, in turn, led to the loss of control and ultimate disintegration of Columbia.

While mourning the loss of the astronauts who died during this disaster, many throughout the world also commemorated the lives and legacies of those individuals. During a memorial service for the STS-107 crew that was held later that month at Johnson Space Center, President George W. Bush highlighted the achievements of each astronaut. “None of our astronauts traveled a longer path to space than Kalpana Chawla,” he said. “She left India as a student, but she would see the nation of her birth, all of it, from hundreds of miles above . . . Kalpana’s native country mourns her today, and so does her adopted land.”

In the years since her untimely death, Chawla has been memorialized in numerous other ways. Several streets and also a variety of programs and facilities at academic institutions in both the United States and India have been named in her honor, for example. In addition, asteroids in space have been named after Chawla and her fellow STS-107 crew members. In yet another tribute, writer Peter David named a shuttlecraft “The Chawla” in one of his Star Trek novels.

For more information on Kalpana Chawla, please check out  https://history.nasa.gov/columbia/Troxell/Columbia%20Web%20Site/Biographies/Crew%20Profile%20Information/Crew%20Biographies/ASTRON~1.HTM and https://airandspace.si.edu/support/wall-of-honor/dr-kalpana-chawla

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