Women’s History Month Profiles: Kalpana Chawla, NASA Astronaut

During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of woman innovators and history makers like Kalpana Chawla, who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.

Born: July 1, 1961, Karnal, India
Died: February 1, 2003, over southern U.S. on Space Shuttle Columbia
Best known for: Being the first Indian-born woman in space

Tragedy struck on a 2003 mission on Columbia STS-107 when the space shuttle malfunctioned upon entry back to Earth, killing the entire crew of seven. One of the crew members, Kalpana Chawla, was the first woman in space of Indian descent. Over her career, she logged more than 30 days in space, conducting experiments as a mission specialist.

The youngest of four, Chawla was born in India in 1961. She earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College. She then moved to the U.S. and became a citizen in the 1980s. She received her master’s degree from the University of Texas and in 1988, earned her doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. That year, she also started working at NASA at its Ames Research Center. In 1993, Chawla began working at Overset Methods Inc. in Los Altos, California, as vice president and research scientist, forming a team of researchers to develop and implement more efficient ways of aerodynamic optimization.

Chawla also held a certified flight instructor’s license with airplane and glider ratings; commercial pilot licenses for single- and multi-engine land and seaplanes; and a gliders certification.

In 1994, Chawla was selected to be an astronaut candidate. She trained for a year and became a crew representative for the Astronaut Office EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches, testing software and technology for space shuttles.

Chawla first went into space in 1997, aboard the Columbia STS-87 as a mission specialist. During the crew’s experiments. Chawla deployed a satellite that would study the outer layer of the sun, although it later malfunctioned prompting other astronauts on board to perform a spacewalk to retrieve it.

In 2000, Chawla was selected for her second voyage, which was delayed until 2003. On board the Columbia’s STS-107, the crew completed more than 80 experiments during its 16-day journey. However, on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, disaster struck while the shuttle was returning to Earth. It was intended to land at Kennedy Space Center, but instead broke up upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere due to a damaged part of thermal protection system that occurred during its initial launch. Everyone on board was killed.

The Columbia tragedy was the second major tragedy of NASA’s space shuttle program after the 1986 explosion of the Challenger. Chawla is survived by her husband, Jean-Pierre Harrison.

The Columbia disaster was officially investigated to understand what happened and to remedy similar issues in the future. Documentaries about the Columbia crew, including 2005’s Astronaut Diaries: Remembering the Columbia Shuttle Crew and 2013’s Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope tell the astronauts’ stories.

Chawla was also posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

The University of Texas opened a Kalpana Chawla memorial at the Arlington College of Engineering in 2010. It includes a flight suit, photographs, facts about Chawla’s life and the flag that was flown over the Johnson Space Center during a memorial for the Columbia crew.

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