Indian American Kalpana Chawla was part of the international crew aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia Flight STS-87 who completed a successful mission last December. While Earth-bound humans were embroiled in politics and other quirks of the third planet from the Sun, the six-member crew space-walked, manipulated remote control devices and orbited millions of miles performing experiments.
Retrospective Edition, January 2022
Astronaut Kalpana Chawla flying high in NASA’s KC-135 “zero-gravity” aircraft, getting the feel of microgravity during training. Photograph courtesy NASA
Kalpana Chawla says she never dreamed, as a child in Karnal, that she would cross the frontiers of space. It was enough that her parents allowed her to attend engineering college after she graduated from Tagore School. Not only did she get a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College, but she went on to get a master’s degree in the United States from the University of Texas. She earned her Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado in 1988. And last November Chawla was the first Indian American woman astronaut to blast off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and participate in a successful mission in space. Her family from India cheered along with staff at the Kennedy Space Center as they watched the Columbia liftoff.
Chawla was born in Karnal, Haryana, but is a naturalized U.S. citizen, married to flight instructor Jean-Pierre Harrison. Besides being an astronaut, she is licensed to fly single and multi-engine land airplanes, single-engine seaplanes and gliders. She is also a certified flight instructor. After qualifying as a pilot in 1987, Chawla began to consider another challenge: applying to NASA’s space shuttle program. She was hired as a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California in 1988, and in 1993 she joined Overset Methods, Inc., Los Altos, California, as vice president and research scientist. In 1994 she was selected by NASA for training as an astronaut, which she began in March 1995, at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.
The fourth U.S. Microgravity Payload shuttle flight STS-87, which completed its 15-day, 16-hour, 34-minute mission on December 5, 1997, was her first time around as Mission Specialist. She hopes to do it again. She and her teammates traversed 10.45 million kilometers during their trip. It was an international crew, including Mission Specialist Takao Doi of the National Space Development Agency of Japan—the first Japanese astronaut to do a space walk—Ukrainian Payload Specialist Leonid Kadenyuk of the National Space Agency of the Ukraine, and three other Americans: Mission Commander Kevin R. Kregel, Pilot Steven Lindsey and Mission Specialist Winston Scott. The crew performed experiments as part of the Collaborative Ukrainian Experiment.
Some of the experiments involved pollinating plants to observe food growth in space and tests for making stronger metals and faster computer chips—all for a price tag of about $56 million. They also had to deal with recalcitrant satellite Spartan, deployed by Chawla for solar observation. A malfunction gave space-walkers Doi and Scott an extra job to do: retrieval of the $10 million satellite.
Now the work will continue back on the ground as scientists analyze the data. When the subject of modeling comes up for Kalpana Chawla, it is usually in connection with numerical simulation and analysis of flow physics. When asked what it is like being a woman in her field she replied, “I really never, ever thought, while pursuing my studies or doing anything else, that I was a woman, or 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.’ ”
Originally published in Jan/Feb 1998