The tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia killed seven astronauts. One of those, Kalpana Chawla, was the first Indian-born woman in space.
Born in Karnal, India, on July 1, 1961, Chawla was the youngest of four children. The name Kalpana means "idea" or "imagination." Her full name is pronounced CULL-puh-na CHAV-la, though she often went by the nickname K.C.
Chawla obtained a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College before immigrating to the United States and becoming a naturalized citizen in the 1980s. She earned a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado in 1988, having previously obtained her masters degree from the University of Texas. She began working at NASA's Ames Research Center the same year, working on power-lift computational fluid dynamics.
In 1994, Chawla was selected as an astronaut candidate. After a year of training, she became a crew representative for the Astronaut Office EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches, where she worked with Robotic Situational Awareness Displays and tested software for the space shuttles.
Chawla's first opportunity to fly in space came in November 1997, aboard the space shuttle Columbia on flight STS-87. The shuttle made 252 orbits of the Earth in just over two weeks. The shuttle carried a number of experiments and observing tools on its trip, including a Spartan satellite, which Chawla deployed from the shuttle. The satellite, which studied the outer layer of the sun, malfunctioned due to software errors, and two other astronauts from the shuttle had to perform a spacewalk to recapture it.
In 2000, Chawla was selected for her second voyage into space, serving again as a mission specialist on STS-107. The mission was delayed several times, and finally launched in 2003. Over the course of the 16-day flight, the crew completed more than 80 experiments.
On the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, the space shuttle returned to Earth, intending to land at Kennedy Space Center. At launch, a briefcase-sized piece of insulation had broken off and damaged the thermal protection system of the shuttle's wing, the shield that protects it from heat during re-entry. As the shuttle passed through the atmosphere, hot gas streaming into the wing caused it to break up. The unstable craft rolled and bucked, pitching the astronauts about. Less than a minute passed before the ship depressurized, killing the crew. The shuttle broke up over Texas and Louisiana before plunging into the ground. The accident was the second major disaster for the space shuttle program, following the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger.
The entire crew of seven was killed. In addition to Chawla, the crew included:
- Commander Rick D. Husband
- Pilot William C. McCool
- Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson
- Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut
- Mission Specialists David M. Brown and Laurel B. Clark
Over the course of her two missions, Chawla logged 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space. After her first launch, she said, "When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system."
The events of Columbia have been officially investigated and reported on to understand what happened and how to prevent the tragedy from re-occurring in future spaceflights. Examples include the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (2003) NASA's Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report (released in 2008).
Several documentaries have been produced about the Columbia crew. Some examples include "Astronaut Diaries: Remembering the Columbia Shuttle Crew" (2005), and one that focused on Ilan Ramon, called "Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope" (2013).
The University of Texas dedicated a Kalpana Chawla memorial at the Arlington College of Engineering in 2010. At the time of its opening, the display included a flight suit, photographs, information about Chawla's life, and a flag that was flown over the Johnson Space Center during a memorial for the Columbia astronauts.
There have been several rumors about films in production concerning Chawla's life, including a rumor in 2017 that had the actress Priyanka Chopra (known for Baywatch and Quantico, as well as Bollywood films) attached to it. But in a Quora discussion in 2017, Chawla's husband — Jean-Pierre Harrison — said: "Until I issue a public statement confirming my participation in such a project, take it for granted that I have not signed any agreement nor licensed any rights necessary to produce such a movie."
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Howell, Space.com contributor