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Kalpana Chawla: Biography & Columbia Disaster

Kalpana Chawla
Kalpana Chawla flew on two shuttle missions. (Image credit: NASA)

Kalpana Chawla became the first Indian-born woman to go to space in 1997. Six years later, on February 1, 2003, Chawla lost her life when the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed. The spacecraft broke up on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board. 

Despite her never returning to Earth, Chawla’s legacy has lived on. This is the life story of an exceptional talent, whose passion and hard work allowed her to achieve her dreams, while inspiring young people in India and millions more across the world to do the same. 

Early life

Born in Karnal, India, on March 17, 1962, to parents Banarasi Lal Chawla and Sanjyothi Chawla, Kalpana Chawla was the youngest of four children. 

Until she started school, Chawla hadn’t been formally named. Her parents called her Montu, but Chawla picked her own name from a selection when she entered education. The name Kalpana means "idea" or "imagination." Her full name is pronounced CULL-pah-na CHAU-la, though she often went by the nickname K.C.

As a child, Chawla developed an interest in flying after first seeing a plane at around the age of three. She spent days with her father visiting her local flying club with her father and showed an interest in aviation while at school. 

Related: Columbia Disaster: What happened and what NASA learned

Kalpana Chawla at school

Chawla (center) with her classmates at Tagore Baal Niketan school in India (Image credit: Getty)

Education

During her earlier education in India, Chawla attended Tagore Baal Niketan Senior Secondary School, Karnal. When Chawla went on to become an astronaut, NASA invited the school to take part in their Summer Space Experience Program. Chawla felt passionately about providing science education opportunities for young girls in India. Each year, from 1998, the school sent two girls to the Foundation for International Space Education’s United Space School in Houston, USA and Chawla would invite them into her home for an Indian dinner.

Chawla obtained a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College. When selecting the course, professors tried to dissuade her, as there were limited opportunities for girls in India following this career path. However, Chawla was adamant that this was the subject for her.

After completing her engineering degree in India, Chawla immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and became a naturalized citizen to continue her studies. 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.

Becoming an astronaut

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.

Disaster strikes

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. 

This image of the STS-107 shuttle Columbia crew in orbit was recovered from wreckage inside an undeveloped film canister. From left (bottom row): Kalpana Chawla, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon. From left (top row): David Brown, William McCool and Michael Anderson.

This image of the STS-107 shuttle Columbia crew in orbit was recovered from wreckage inside an undeveloped film canister. From left (bottom row): Kalpana Chawla, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon. From left (top row): David Brown, William McCool, and Michael Anderson. (Image credit: NASA/JSC)

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.

Related: Debris From Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster Found in Texas

The entire crew of seven was killed. In addition to Chawla, the crew included: Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon, David Brown, William McCool and Michael Anderson.

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."

Chawla's legacy

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) and 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).

Kalpana Chawla in space

Chawla aboard the space shuttle on January 27, 2003. (Image credit: Getty)

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.

In October 2020, a commercial cargo spacecraft named after Chawla was launched to the International Space Station (ISS). Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus capsule was named the S.S. Kalpana Chawla, as it is the company’s policy to dedicate their Cygnus capsules to someone who has played a pivotal role in human spaceflight. Northrop Grumman said in a statement that "Chawla was selected in honor of her prominent place in history as the first woman of Indian descent to go to space."

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