By Marcia K. Gitelman
Kalpana Chawla or KC, as she was known to her friends and fellow astronauts, was born in India, the third girl in a family of four children. This shaped her destiny, as all of her life she was determined “not to be just another girl”. She eventually became the second astronaut born in India, and the first Indian woman to fly in space.
KC was the daughter of middle class parents who had settled in India after the partition of the subcontinent from Pakistan. Her parents, while they did not have a good educational background themselves, were successful. They were determined that their children be well educated. While attending high school KC was fortunate enough to live in a town that had a flying club. She would see students flying “Pushpaks”, a plane that is similar to a J3 Cub. She and her brother would be on their bikes looking up to see what the students were doing. They asked their father if they could get a ride in one of the planes. He took his children to the club and was able to arrange rides in the Pushpak, and a glider that the club owned. J. R. D. Tata, a pilot who had flown some of the first mail flights in India, also inspired KC. He was an Indian aerospace hero. Seeing his plane hanging in one of the aerodromes captured her imagination.
The educational system is set up in India so that when you are in eighth grade you have to pick a track. Kalpana decided on aerospace engineering. On completion of high school she was the first woman accepted into that program at Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh. Aircraft design was the career she wished to pursue. After completing her degree in India she came to the United States to further her education despite her family’s disapproval. She earned a masters degree at the University of Texas and a doctorate at the University of Colorado, both in aerospace engineering. Kalpana Chawla was accepted into the astronaut corps in 1994 and reported to the Johnson Space Center for training in March 1995. Her flight on Columbia was her second journey into space.
Further distancing herself from Indian custom, Kalpana married Jean-Pierre Harrison and became an American citizen. Indian convention was for arranged marriages. Her family was shocked, but once she joined the space program they were very “proud and elated” said her brother. KC never forgot her roots. At her request, NASA invited her high school to take part in a summer space experience program. Starting in 1998, every summer the International Space School Foundation in Houston TX hosted two students from India each year. The program included dinner at her home complete with Indian cooking prepared by KC. “Whatever you believe in do—just follow your dreams. Don’t worry about whether people encourage you” an 18 year old Indian student remembered her saying.Photo credit NASA — STS-107 Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla joins other crew members after arrival at KSC for pre-launch preparations
Her assignment on STS-107 was as Flight Engineer. This was a research mission and loaded with many experiments. “The overall objective of flying all of these experiments is basically to, simply to, understand”, she said. “It would be fair to say: to try to understand or better understand physical processes on Earth, be they in the area of life sciences or materials or climate.”
KC extended her enthusiasm for aerospace beyond becoming an astronaut. She became a pilot as well. She held a Flight Instructor license with airplane and glider ratings, Commercial Pilot’s licenses for single and multi-engine land and seaplanes, and Gliders, and an Instrument rating for airplanes. Her favorite activities included aerobatic flying and flying tail-wheel airplanes.
When asked about the people in her life that inspired her, Kalpana would become very philosophical. “For me, definitely, it comes every day from people in all walks of life. It’s easy for me to be motivated and inspired by seeing somebody who just goes all out to do something.” At one moment she talked about Sir Ernest Shackleton an explorer of the Antarctic, or Lewis and Clark who explored the United States. Then she sited Peter Matthiessen and “how he explored the whole world and chronicled life, animals and birds as they exist. And he’s done it by simply walking on his feet”. What else would we expect from the “space explorer” she was. Then KC would switch gears and mention Patty Wagstaff, the unlimited US Aerobatic Champion three times in a row. “And that’s not men’s or women’s, that’s The Champion.” Patty “started out kind of late flying aerobatic airplanes and then had the where-with-all to say she was going to take part in the championships.” Only a fellow aerobatic pilot could truly understand the complexities of that type of flying, and appreciate Patty’s achievements. Winston Scott, a retired astronaut, and Vice President for Student Affairs at Florida State University, was quoted as saying that, after her career at NASA her desire was to become a “bush pilot”. She would have been still exploring and helping people.
The Indian government, in her memory, has named their newest weather satellite, the first MetSat, Kalpana-1. Other satellites in the series will also carry her name. And so her spirit lives on to inspire the children of India. Let us hope that she will inspire us all, to accomplish all, we are capable of.
Photo: Marcia K. Gitelman
Photographer: Marcus Altmann
I have been a pilot since 1967. My husband and I fly a Piper Comanche. I have a Commercial license with an Instrument and Seaplane ratings. I am a member of several aviation groups including The Ninety Nines and Women in Aviation. I am a trustee of the International Women’s Air and Space Museum in Cleveland, OH. I have recently been appointed to the Board of Visitors of Embry Riddle University.
I have degrees from both the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology. I was a mathematics and computer literacy instructor in Rochester, NY for over 30 years. From 1995 to 2003 I wrote numerous articles for Woman Pilot Magazine concentrating mainly but not exclusively, on the woman astronauts. I have spent several years of intensive research on the life of Blanche Stuart Scott, 1st American woman pilot. A web page about her life is under construction with plans that this research result in a book about her life.
I am married to David M. Gitelman and have two sons, Richard and Bruce.