Kalpana Chawla, who passed away on this day in 2003, was the first woman of Indian descent to fly to space. On February 1, 2003, space shuttle Columbia crashed while returning to earth after completing its space mission. During the accident, the spaceship burst into flames due to friction from the atmosphere.
All seven astronauts aboard the spacecraft were killed in the accident; among them was India’s first female astronaut, Kalpana Chawla.
She was born in Karnal, Haryana, in 1962 and moved to America at the age of 20. She received a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering two years later.
Kalpana joined NASA as an astronaut in 1995 and was selected for her first flight in 1998. She spent 372 hours in space and completed 252 Earth orbits on her first trip to space.
Kalpana pursued a bachelor of engineering in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College. She was also a poet and used to take part in school dance programmes.
She was the youngest of four sisters and brothers at home and was affectionately known as Montu. Kalpana had informed her father that she wanted to be an engineer when she was in class 8, but her father wanted to be a doctor or a teacher, instead.
As a child, flying in planes and the sky enthralled her. She would accompany her father to the local flying club. Kalpana Chawla’s final rites were performed at Zion National Park in Utah, USA.
Many universities, scholarships, and even roads have been named in her honour after the tragic accident. Northrop Grumman, a US-based aerospace and defence firm has also named its spaceship Kalpana Chawla. The US space agency NASA dedicated a supercomputer to Kalpana Chawla on May 12, 2004.
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