Indian-born engineer Dr Kalpana Chawla became the first professional astronaut
of Indian origin when she was launched in to space on the shuttle Columbia Nov
19, 1997 at 2:46 p.m. E.S.T.
Who would have thought that a young Indian girl with her feet firmly on the ground would one day fly into the heavens? While for most people outer space is uncharted territory, for Kalpana it became a reality. Just the second Indian to venture in space after Rakesh Sharma's flight thirteen years ago, she became a celebrity back home in India.
'What-you-dream-is-what-you-become' neatly describes 36-year old Dr Kalpana
Chawla's soaring leap from Karnal, Haryana to deep space. The skies had always
tempted her, as was evident from her school environment project at Tagore Bal
Niketan, made up of colourful charts and models depicting the sky, stars etc
or her paper on Mars, written in her eleventh standard. Egged on by her
father, Banarasi Lal Chawla - a refugee who made his fortune selling soaps -
she joined the Karnal Flying Club. But she flatly over-ruled his suggestion
for opting 'medicine' as a career and stuck to her only love - aviation.
Since 'aeronautical engineering' was more or less considered a male-domain,
her professors' at the Punjab Engineering College vainly tried to push her
towards the conventional options - electrical or mechanical engineering.
Succeeding against all odds, she became the college's first aeronautical
engineer in 1982. Convention again dogged her next step to USA when her father
insisted that "going to Chandigarh from Karnal was good enough, don't go
further. It's time you got married and settled down here." Kalpana,
however, asked her sisters for support and made it.
Flying was still a distant luxury till 1984, during her post-graduate studies
at the University of Texas. It was only when she secured a higher stipend
during her doctorate studies in aerospace engineering - which she completed in
1988, from the University of Colorado, that she could take up flying again.
She not only got her commercial pilot license but also qualified as a flight
Hired by MCAT Institute, San Jose, California, as a Research Scientist to
support research in the area of powered lift at NASA Ames Research Center,
California, in 1988, Kalpana was responsible for simulation and analysis of
flow physics pertaining to the operation of powered lift aircraft such as the
Harrier in ground effect. She modeled and numerically simulated configurations
that include important components of realistic powered lift aircraft, both in
hover and landing mode, using Navier-Stokes solvers on Cray YMP
supercomputers. In 1993 Dr. Chawla joined Overset Methods Inc., Los Altos,
California, as Vice President and Research Scientist to form a team with other
researchers specializing in simulation of moving multiple body problems. She
was responsible for development and implementation of efficient techniques to
perform aerodynamic optimization. Smooth Take-off
She was eventually selected by NASA in 1994 as an astronaut - one of the final
19 from 2962 applicants. All along, she did have a gut feel that she would be
chosen due to her technical background and a " strong desire to go out in
the blue yonder." Within a year of joining the Johnson Space Centre in
March 1995, she was assigned to work on technical issues for the Astronaut
office, EVA/Robotics and Computer branches. Kalpana, finally, realised her
dream by becoming a mission specialist on the crew of the fourth US
Microgravity Payload flight - mission STS87 which took off on Nov' 19. Just
the second Indian to venture in space after Rakesh Sharma's flight thirteen
years ago, Kalpana's Columbia sojourn lasted for 15 days, 16 hours and 33
minutes. The experiments she carried out will ascertain the impact of
weightlessness on several industrial materials.
Her family always believed "she would do something extraordinary some
day," as Kalpana had no interest in make-up, hairstyle or cooking like
her contemporaries. When her elder sister got married, she wore the same suit
for three consecutive days saying " it did not matter at all." Her
aunt, Amrit Kaur, is proud of her year-and-half rigorous training regime at
NASA where "they would leave her in the jungles without food and water to
survive on her own." Kalpana, as usual, topped with flying colours.
All through her string of achievements, she has not forgotten her humble
Indian roots. Along with her parents, she also invited her former school
principal, Vimla Raheja , to witness the Columbia launch. She also requested
her school to send her a souvenir to take along. They did send - a T-shirt.
For a girl with hobbies like back-packing and hiking, Dr Kalpana Chawla's
dream journey has just commenced.