Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian-born woman to reach space, tragically died on 1st February 2003. She was the second Indian to fly in space after Rakesh Sharma. The Haryana-born astronaut died along with six others — just 16 minutes before landing as the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas during its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Early Life and Education

Kalpana Chawla was born on 17th March 1962 in Karnal, Haryana.  She graduated from the Tagore School in 1976 and then went on to complete her bachelor’s in Aeronautical Engineering from the Punjab Engineering College in 1983. Later, she moved to the United States for higher studies. She completed her master’s in Aerospace Engineering in 1984 from the University of Texas at Arlington. After that, she moved to Boulder, Colorado in order to pursue a doctorate in aerospace engineering, which she completed in 1988.

After earning her doctorate, she started working at NASA, where she did computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research on vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) concepts. She later became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991 and then applied for the NASA Astronaut Corps. She joined the corps in 1995 and then NASA selected for her first flight in 1996.

Space flights

Kalpana became the first Indian woman to reach space on November 17, 1997, when her first space mission began. She was a part of the six-astronaut crew who flew the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87. On her first mission, Chawla traveled over 10.4 million miles (16737177.6 km) in 252 orbits of the earth, logging more than 372 hours (15 Days and 12 Hours) in space.

Kalpana was selected for her second flight in 2000. She became a part of the crew of STS-107. Due to various technical and scheduling conflicts, NASA had to delay the mission several times. Then on 16th January 2003, Kalpana’s mission was launched. The crew performed nearly 80 experiments which included studying earth and space science, advanced technology development, and astronaut health and safety.

The accident and tragic death of Kalpana

It all started during the launch of STS-107. It was Columbia’s 28th mission and a piece of foam insulation broke off from the Space Shuttle external tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter. NASA thought that it was a minor issue as previous launches had seen such incidents and everything went fine. Some engineers suspected that the damage is quite serious but it was too late as they reasoned that the crew could not have fixed the problem if it had been confirmed.

When Columbia re-entered the atmosphere of Earth, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate and destroy the internal wing structure. This caused instability of the spacecraft. The Spacecraft disintegrated into pieces resulting in the death for 7 crew members including our Kalpana Chawla.

After this incident, NASA suspended all its space operations for the next two years. She was made for the sky and she died in the sky. Though Kalpana died, we still remember her as the lady who dared to fly. She will keep inspiring the generations to come.

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