Kalpana Chawla: Story of first Indian woman in space who motivated masses; All you need to know

The first Indian woman in space: Facts about Kalpana Chawla & how she died

March 17, 2018, marks the 56th birthday of Kalpana Chawla – the first and only Indian woman in Space and second to Rakesh Sharma who went in the space back in 1984. She logged in around 750 hours in space in her two NASA missions i.e. STS-87 and STS-107. She died on February 01, 2003 in a fatal accident that killed six other astronauts while making a re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere after finishing her task in the space. On March 17, many celebrities, politicians, business honchos and near & dear ones tweeted their condolences on her birthday. Here are few facts you need to know about Kalpana Chawla or as she was fondly called ‘KC’.

Kalpana Chawla was born on March 17, 1962, in Karnal, Haryana which is a small town in India. She attended the Punjab Engineering College and completed her undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering in 1983 after which, she went to the United States to pursue higher studies. She completed her Masters from the University of Texas based in Arlington and then went on to acquired a second degree in 1986. Then, she moved further to get her Ph.D. degree in 1988. After completing her education in the aerospace domain, she joined NASA Astronaut Corps where she was selected for her first space travel aboard STS-87 in 1997. After logging more than 350 hours on her first mission where she deployed the Spartan satellite that malfunctioned for which she was exonerated. She was later assigned a job in the astronaut office for a couple of years.

In 2000, she was roped in for her second space mission aboard “Space Shuttle Columbia” which took place on January 16, 2003. After conducting more than 80 experiments and more than 350 hours of space travel, she along with six other astronauts attempted re-entry on February 1, 2003, when an insulated foam broke off from the space shuttle and penetrated the orbiter. This led to a chain of events when finally, the space shuttle exploded mid-air only 18 minutes away from landing in Texas.

To commemorate her contribution to the space exploration, an asteroid ‘51826 Kalpana Chawla’ was named after her along with six different asteroids on six astronauts who died in 2003. Soon after her death, then Prime Minister of India announced that all the meteorological satellites stationed in the space will be renamed in her honor. The first satellite ‘MetSat-1’ was renamed as ‘Kalpana-1’ on September 12, 2003. In 2004, Government of Karnataka established ‘Kalpana Chawla Award’ recognizing the talent of young women scientists in India. During NASA Mars Exploration Rover mission, a chain of hills on Mars called ‘Columbia Hills’ were named after each of the astronauts who died in the fatal space shuttle Columbia incident including Kalpana Chawla.

The University of Colorado where Kalpana did her Masters renamed its Alumni Award on Chalwa. It is now known as ‘Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Recent Alumni Award’. Different universities in India renamed their girls’ hostel blocks after Kalpana. Her story of being a girl of a small town to its work in space has inspired millions of people all over the world. Before the 2003 fatal accident, she replied to her family stating that the mission has succeeded over and now, they will return home on Earth.

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