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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Kalpana Chawla


                                                              
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. 

Kalpana Chawla was born in Karnal (Haryana) in 1961 to Banarasi Lal Chawla and Sanjyothi. Her interest in flying was inspired by J. R. D. Tata, a pioneering Indian aviator and industrialist. Chawla has two sisters, Sunita and Deepa, and a brother, Sanjay. Being the youngest the family members gave her the nickname "Montu." In 1983, she met and married Jean-Pierre Harrison, a flying instructor and aviation writer. She became a US citizen in 1990. Her motto was: Follow your dreams, and the brave heart fulfilled it.


'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 instructor. 

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 had just commenced. Tragically, Kalpana was killed in a shuttle crash in 2003.

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