Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian American woman astronaut, was born on March 17, 1962, in Karnal, India, to Syongita (Devi) and Banarsi Lal Chawla, the owner of a tire manufacturing plant. As a child she dreamed of becoming an astronaut after being inspired by Jehangir R. D. “JRD” Tata, the pilot of the first mail flights in India and owner of Tata Air Services. She graduated from the Tagore Baal Niketan Senior Secondary School in Karnal in 1976. In 1978 she attended Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh, India. There she was the first woman to enroll in aerospace engineering courses and one of four women in the engineering program. She graduated with a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1982, then moved to the United States. In 1984 Chawla received a master of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. While in Arlington, she met Jean-Pierre Harrison, a licensed pilot. They married in Tarrant County on December 2, 1983. At the University of Colorado, she earned a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in 1988.
After completing her education, Chawla worked on power-lift computational fluid dynamics for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). At the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, she researched complex airflows during vertical/short takeoffs and landings for aircrafts such as Harriers. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in April 1991 and applied for NASA’s astronaut program. In 1993 she was named the vice president of Overset Methods, Inc., a small scientific-research-based non-profit corporation in Los Altos, California. After months of evaluations and interviews, in December 1994 Chawla was accepted into the NASA Astronaut Corps. She and her husband moved to Houston, Texas, and she began her training at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in March 1995.
She was selected in November 1996 for the six-member crew of the STS-87 (Space Transportation System-87) to fly the space shuttle Columbia in 1997. She served as the STS-87 Mission Specialist 1 and backup Flight Engineer for ascent. As the primary operator of the shuttle’s robotic arm, she successfully removed a satellite from the shuttle’s payload bay. When STS-87 launched on November 19, 1997, Chawla became the first woman born in India and first Indian American woman in space. India’s Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral called her personally from Earth to congratulate her. He expressed how proud India was of her and her achievements and that she was an inspiration to Indian women and children.
Although Chawla gave up her Indian citizenship to become an astronaut, India always remained important to her. To provide educational opportunities in science for Indian girls, she arranged for her hometown Tagore school to participate in NASA’s Summer Space Experience Program. Beginning in 1998 the Tagore School sent two female students each year to the Foundation for International Space Education’s United Space School in Houston. Every summer Chawla invited the students to her home for a homemade Indian dinner.
In 2000 NASA selected Chawla as Flight Engineer and Mission Specialist for the STS-107 mission. On January 16, 2003, after numerous delays, space shuttle Columbia launched the STS-107 crew of seven astronauts into space for a sixteen-day mission. Chawla’s family from South Delhi watched lift-off at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and spoke with her a few hours later. Upon completing their mission, however, Columbia’s reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere took a tragic turn on February 1, 2003 (see SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA CRASH). With just minutes left of the mission, Columbia broke apart, killing all seven members of the crew, including Chawla. Prior to the disaster, Chawla had recorded thirty-one days, fourteen hours, and fifty-four minutes in space. She was survived by her husband, parents, and a brother. Her identified remains were cremated, and her ashes were scattered at Zion National Park in Utah.
Following her death, Chawla received numerous commendations for her dedication to space research. She was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal posthumously. NASA also named a supercomputer in after her. In 2004 Mars scientists named seven hills, important terrestrial landmarks on Mars for the Spirit rover mission, after each member of the Columbia crew. The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) named a residence hall after her, and UTA College of Engineering has a permanent exhibit dedicated to Chawla. Additional dedications in India include a planetarium in Jyotisar, India; India’s first weather satellite, the Kalpana-1; and the Kalpana Chawla Auditorium at Tagore School. India citizens and the UTA campus continued to celebrate her life every year on the anniversary of her death.