From Karnal to Houston

By daring to dream differently, Kalpana Chawla became a source of inspiration for students. (Published in the issue dated February 28, 2003.)

Published : May 20, 2021 00:00 IST

Kalpana Chawla and her husband (standing) with students of the Tagore Bal Niketan.

Kalpana Chawla and her husband (standing) with students of the Tagore Bal Niketan.

IN Hindi and in Sanskrit `Kalpana' is a dream, a fantasy - something that belongs to the realm of imagination. The first and only Indian-American to reach space, Kalpana Chawla dreamt big, beyond the impossible.

The mud house in Model Town in Karnal, Haryana, where Kalpana was born on July 1, 1961, was sold by her family, which moved to Delhi. The present owner of the property, Vijay Setia, a family friend of the Chawlas, has converted it into an impressive white bungalow. He welcomes people to his house and shows them around. From the courtyard here Kalpana used to watch the stars and dream of reaching out for them. For Setia and the other residents of Karnal, Kalpana is a star who put their town on the international map.

Accounts provided by her family members and friends show that for Kalpana the journey from Karnal to Houston was a difficult one. The very first challenge before her was to prove to the world that being a woman did not rule out the option of a career in aeronautics. Says her first cousin Veena Chawla: "What kept her going was her determination and the spirit to not take no for an answer." Montu, as she is known to her family members, was the youngest of four children - three girls and a boy. Her father Banarsi Lal Chawla came to India following Partition, from Sheikhopura in West Punjab. The family tried its hand at several businesses in Amritsar before moving to Karnal, which is 126 km from Delhi. There they began manufacturing rubber belts and tyres.

Says Veena Chawla: "It was obvious from the start that the girls in the family had made up their minds that they would not follow the conventional path of getting married early and settling down. They wanted a career for themselves. Kalpana being the youngest, was fortunate as all the battles in the male domain were fought by elder sister Sunita." In an interview ahead of her first space flight, Kalpana said that although the academic part was intriguing, flying was sheer fun.

Kalpana's teachers in Karnal remember that even as a student of the Tagore Bal Niketan from where she passed out in 1976 she was interested in flying. Recalls her teacher Daljeet Madan: "She was fascinated by airplanes and preferred to make them in the crafts class. In school she was always amongst the first five. I expected her to do well. I still remember her face when in Class VIII she told me that she had gone for her first glider ride."

In an interview she gave before the latest Columbia mission, Kalpana recalled how she and her brother would be on their bikes, trying to see where the airplanes were headed. She said: "We'd ask my dad if we could get a ride in one of those planes. And he did get us a ride on the Pushpak and a glider. I think that's really my closest link to aerospace engineering. Also, growing up, we knew of J.R.D. Tata, who flew some of the first mail flights in India, one of which now hangs in an aerodrome out there. Seeing this airplane and just knowing what this person has done during those years definitely captivated my imagination."

In Houston, Kalpana got herself a certificated flight instructor's licence with airplane and glider ratings besides commercial pilot's licences for single and multi-engine land and seaplanes, and instrument rating airplanes. Married to Jean Pierre Harrison, a freelance flying instructor, Kalpana liked to spend her free time performing aerobatics and flying tail wheel airplanes. She enjoyed hiking, back-packing and reading - apparently Alexander Solzhenitsyn was her favourite author. Devotional music of Sufi saints and classic rock of the 1970s British band Deep Purple, inspired her. Columbia's debris included sound tracks of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Ravi Shankar and Hariprasad Chaurasia.

Kalpana Chawla's achievements did not come easy. When she joined the Punjab Engineering College (PEC) in Chandigarh she faced disapproval not only from home but also from the college's department of aeronautical engineering. She was one of only seven young women in the whole college and the only woman to have taken up aerospace engineering. The department tried to shift her to the electrical or mechanical departments but had to relent when Kalpana refused to budge. Says professor S.C. Sharma of the PEC: "In class she was aware of the fact that she was the only girl. She would often say, if the boys can do it then why can't I?'' Recalling Kalpana's passion for flying, Sharma said: "On one occasion I asked the class how many students had seen the movie Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines . Kalpana had seen it and she insisted that she would arrange for the entire class to see it. She booked a restaurant with a television and a videoplayer. In the 1980s, it was difficult to find such a place but at the end of the day the entire class thanked her for showing them the movie."

Dr. Sharma, who was one of Kalpana's referees when she applied to universities in the United States for her master's degree, says that she stood out in her class when it came to organising seminars and discussions. A good academic record and active involvement in the PEC's Aero and Astro Society assured her easy admission into American universities. After securing an admission with assistantship in the University of Texas-Arlington, Kalpana had a tough time persuading her family to allow her to go abroad for higher studies. Consequently, she joined the session several months late. After completing an M.Sc. in Aerospace Engineering from Texas in 1984, she went on to take a doctorate in the same subject from the University of Colorado in 1988.

In 1988, Kalpana joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Ames Research Centre to work in the area of powered lift computational fluid dynamics. Her research concentrated on the simulation of complex air flows encountered around aircraft types such as the Harrier in "ground effect". Following the completion of this project, she assisted research in the mapping of flow solvers to parallel computers, and the testing of these solvers by carrying out powered life computations. Her next break came in 1993 when she joined Overset Methods in California as a vice-president and research scientist to form a team with other researchers specialising in the simulation of moving multiple body problems. She was responsible for developing and implementing efficient techniques to perform aerodynamic optimisation.

Selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in December 1994, Kalpana reported to the Johnson Space Centre in March 1995 in the 15th such group. After a year of training and evaluation, she was assigned to be a crew representative to work on technical issues for the astronaut office. In 1996, her career touched new heights when she was assigned as the mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on STS-87, the fourth microgravity payload flight. The focus here was on experiments designed to study how the weightless environment of space affects various physical processes and observations of the sun's outer atmospheric layers.

Kalpana's work in the mission became a source of a minor controversy when a satellite malfunctioned. In trying to grab it, she nudged it away from Columbia and was blamed for closing the arm too quickly. The satellite was retrieved by undertaking a space-walk. The entire crew was blamed for not recognising a chain of errors that led to the events. But Kalpana was cleared by NASA to fly aboard Columbia for a second time in less than five years.

Kalpana's duties on STS-107 included making sure that all the systems worked nominally. She would check the different meters and displays in an organised fashion to diagnose any malfunctions and respond to them, helping the commander and the pilot to undertake necessary procedures.

Her teachers in school and college recount how, despite her busy schedule, she kept in touch with the students. Said Madan: "It was because of her efforts that every year since 1998 two students from Tagore school have been visiting NASA." The students would recount stories of how Kalpana "didi" made Indian meals especially for them.

In her last message to the students of the PEC, Kalpana advised them not only to dream but to work towards making those dreams possible. In an e-mail message she wrote: "The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it. Wishing you [a] great journey."

In Chandigarh, her professors now recount how after her first mission a large number of young women were inspired to opt for Aerospace Engineering. This is no small contribution in a State where, even in the year 2003, the birth of a girl child is hardly cause for celebration.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment