“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. “
–Kalpana Chawla following her return to earth
In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re recognizing the economic, cultural, political, social, and scientific contributions of influential immigrants and refugees who’ve helped shape the vibrant tapestry of America.
Today we focus on Indian American NASA engineer and astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who in 1997 became the first Indian-born woman in space.
Kalpana Chawla was born in Karnal, India, in 1962, the youngest of three siblings. Her parents let her choose her name when she entered school. She picked Kalpana for its inspirational meaning, “imagination.” Chawla showed interest in flying early in life while regularly visiting a local flying club with her parents. She obtained an engineering degree, even though professors cautioned her about the lack of opportunities for women in her native India. After graduating, Chawla immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s before gaining U.S. citizenship in 1991.
In the U.S., she completed a master’s degree from the University of Texas and later a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. She began working at NASA in 1988. Her work focused on air flows around aircraft in flight and integrating computers into the process.
Chawla’s first flight to space took place aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1997, when she worked as the primary robotic operator. The crew made 252 orbits of Earth in less than three weeks.
She made her second mission into space in 2003, initially slated for a 2000 launch. Amongst the 16-day mission’s focus was testing NASA technology to recycle water on the International Space Station, along with experiments focusing on biological and health sciences.
On the morning of Feb 1, 2023, the shuttle carrying Chawla and her fellow crew members was scheduled to return to Earth. But missing insulation, damaged during launch, led to a malfunction of the shuttle’s thermal protection, leading to an unstable re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, depressurization, and the death of the entire crew. It was the second major disaster for the NASA space shuttle program following the 1986 explosion of the Challenger.
Chawla logged 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space during her trailblazing career.
Chawla’s legacy still lives on. The University of Texas dedicated the Kalpana Chawla memorial at the Arlington College of Engineering. In 2010, a commercial spacecraft named after Chawla launched to the International Space Station. Additionally, NASA’s commercial resupply program, Northrop Grumman, named a space capsule, the S.S. Kalpana Chawla, to pay tribute to her pivotal role in human space flight.