Dr. Kalpana Chawla – Astronaut

Dr. Kalpana Chawla

“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.” – Dr. Kalpana Chawla



Name: Kalpana Chawla

Life: March 16 1972  –  February 1st 2003 (died aged 40 in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster)


BEng: Aeronautical Engineering, Punjab Engineering College (Chandigargh, India)

MS: (1) Aerospace Engineering, University of Texas at Arlington

 (2) Aerospace Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

PhD: Aerospace Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Occupation: Astronaut (flew on Space Shuttle Columbia as Mission Specialist), space scientist, aeronautical and aviation engineer


Who was Kalpna Chawla?

Kalpana Chawla was born on the 17th of March 1962 in Karnal, India. Her father Banarsi Lal Chawla, had previously left his hometown of Sheikhopura, Pakistan and come to Karnal due to communal riots breaking out. He was one of the few survivors of his family who managed to reach India, however he had no possessions, and despite his own family’s poverty, they are remembered in Karnal for their services to the poor and needy in that small town. [1][3]

In order to survive, Banarsi started many small businesses including “selling toffees, groundnuts, dates and soaps” as a street vendor and even setting up a textile shop. Due to his perseverance and talent, he became a self-taught engineer and started making and selling tyres, which then became a fully-fledged tyre manufacturing company. [3]

Kalpana was born to him and his wife Sanyogita on the 17th of March 1962 during the period when he was still a street vendor. Due to her growing up relatively poor, hard work and taking nothing for granted was always encouraged in the Chawla household. Sanyogita also came from a family where education was valued, and as a result fought for her daughters’ rights to go into higher education. Kalpana’s eldest sister Sunita had done well in school, and had gone to college, and Kalpana would follow in her footsteps. [3]

 “Kalpana” is a word of Sanskrit origin which means “creativity” and “imagination” in several languages used in the Indian subcontinent including Hindi, Telugu, Marathi and Nepali. And Kalpana was just this, wildly inquisitive and imaginative about the world around her, forever curious about the night sky. During the intense Indian summer heat, young Kalpana and her family would sleep on the roof of their small house, and she would gaze longingly at the stars above her, wondering if she’d ever get to them. [1][2][3]

young kalpana
Young Kalpana. [10]
Alongside stars in the night sky, planes also captured her imagination. Her hometown, Karnal, is one of the few towns in India with an aviation club. Her house was but a few kilometres from the Karnal Aviation Club, and she constantly used to climb up to the roof of her house and watch the aircrafts roar as they flew over her head, and in school she adored drawing and making models of these planes during design technology classes.  By the time she was in tenth grade Kalpana had made up her mind with regards to what she wanted to do career-wise; she was determined to become a flight engineer! When she saw a photograph of the Viking lander on Mars, it opened her eyes to the possibility of working on flights in space amongst the stars she so often dreamt about. After 10th grade she undertook science and maths classes at DAV college, an exclusive womens’ college, and in order to be accepted actually went to the lengths of officially changing her date of birth to July 1st 1961 in order to be eligible for the matriculation examination. [1][3]

After DAV College, Kalpana’s excellent grades secured her admission to Punjab Engineering College for her undergraduate degree. However, Kalpana’s father tried to dissuade her from attending because he felt that as a woman, Kalpana would have no prospects in the field of engineering, and instead advised her to become a doctor or a school teacher. These patriarchal cultural values did not hold Kalpana back; once again, her determined nature shone through and she was absolutely adamant that she was going to university to get a degree in aeronautical engineering, and of the seven girls that were admitted to Punjab Engineering College, she was the only one who opted for the aeronautical engineering course. Even her own teachers at university tried to dissuade her from the aeronautical engineering course, feeling that there were limited job opportunities in that area, and tried to shift her towards the electrical engineering course. But no force in existence could stop Kalpana from doing what she wanted; she was going to become an aeronautical engineer, and she was going to learn what it took to fly. [3]

After securing her BSc in Aeronautical Engineering in 1982 (where she came third In her class), she moved to the US and obtained a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984, with her MS thesis entitled “Optimization of cross flow fan housing for airplane wing installation”  and then went on to obtain a second MS degree in 1986 and a PhD in 1988 from the University of Colorado Boulder in aerospace engineering with her PhD thesis entitled “Computation of dynamics and control of unsteady vortical flows”.  [1][3][4][5]

What did Chawla’s career focus on?

Chawla began her career with NASA in 1988, straight after graduating with her PhD. Her research centred around computational fluid dynamics relating to vertical and/or short take-off (V/STOL) concepts. In 1993, she joined Overset Methods, Inc as Vice President and Research Scientist, with her speciality being computational simulations of moving multiple body problems. [1][2]

chawla excellent cardigan
Kalpana Chawla at work at NASA. [11]
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. In March 1995 she officially became part of the NASA “Astronaut Corps”, something she could only do after becoming a naturalized US citizen in April 1991: systematic racism rearing its ugly head in the fact it took 3 years for her to become a US citizen after moving to the states. [1]

In 1996, Kalpana was selected for her first space flight, and the mission began on the 17th of November 1997, where she was part of the six-astronaut crew that flew the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-87. The mission made her the first Indian woman to fly in space. [2]

kalpana chawla
Official NASA photo portrait of Dr. Kalpana Chawla. [1]
On her first mission, Kalpana logged over 372 hours in space, travelling over 10.4 million miles. After the successful completion of the mission, Kalpana was assigned to technical positions in the astronaut office to work on the space station. [1]

In 2000, Kalpana was selected for her second flight as part of the crew of STS-107, the 113th flight of the Space Shuttle program and the final flight of Space Shuttle Columbia. STS-107 was repeatedly delayed due to technical problems, an example of which being the discovery of cracks in the shuttle engine flow liners in July 2002, these problems foreshadowing the tragedy to befall the shuttle. [1][2]

Death and Legacy

On January 16th 2003, STS-107 entered orbit about Space Shuttle Columbia, where the crew performed nearly 80 experiments studying earth and space science and advanced technology development, with Kalpana being one of the Mission Specialists. Upon re-entry of Earth’s atmosphere on February 1st 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas killing all seven crew members merely twelve minutes from touchdown, due to a piece of foam insulation breaking off from the external tank during the launch. When Columbia re-entered the atmosphere of Earth, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate the heat shield and destroy the internal wing structure, which caused the spacecraft to become unstable and break apart. After the disaster, Space Shuttle operations were suspended for more than two years, and the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was put on hold. [1]

Chawla had logged a total of 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space. In accordance with her wishes, and her Hindu ancestry, her remains were cremated and her ashes were scattered in a National Park in Utah.

A list of honours bestowed upon Kalpana Chawla can be found below:

  • Asteroid 51826 Kalpana Chawla, was named after her, one of seven named after the Columbia’s crew.
  • On February 5, 2003, the Prime Minister of India announced that the meteorological series of satellites, MetSat, was to be renamed “Kalpana”. The first satellite of the series, “MetSat-1”, launched by India on September 12, 2002 was renamed “Kalpana-1”.
  • 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City has been renamed “Kalpana Chawla Way” in her honour.
  • The Kalpana Chawla Award was instituted by the Government of Karnataka in 2004 to recognize young women scientists.
  • NASA has dedicated a supercomputer to Chawla.
  • One of Florida Institute of Technology’s student apartment complexes, Columbia Village Suites, has halls named after each of the astronauts, including Chawla.
  • The NASA Mars Exploration Rover mission has named seven peaks in a chain of hills, named the Columbia Hills, after each of the seven astronauts lost in the Columbia shuttle disaster. One of them is Chawla Hill, named after Chawla.
  • Steve Morse from the band Deep Purple created the song “Contact Lost” in memory of the Columbia tragedy along with her interest in the band. The song can be found on the album Bananas.
  • Novelist Peter David named a shuttlecraft, the Chawla, after the astronaut in his 2007 Star Trek novel, Star Trek: The Next Generation: Before Dishonor.
  • The Kalpana Chawla ISU Scholarship fund was founded by alumni of the International Space University (ISU) in 2010 to support Indian student participation in international space education programs.
  • The Kalpana Chawla Memorial Scholarship program was instituted by the Indian Students Association (ISA) at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) in 2005 for meritorious graduate students.
  • The Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Recent Alumni Award at the University of Colorado, given since 1983, was renamed after Chawla.
  • The University of Texas at Arlington, where Chawla obtained a Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering in 1984, opened a dormitory named Kalpana Chawla Hall in 2004.
  • Kalpana Chawla Hall, University of Texas Arlington
  • In addition, the university dedicated the Kalpana Chawla Memorial on May 3, 2010, in Nedderman Hall, one of the primary buildings in the College of Engineering.
  • The girls’ hostel at Punjab Engineering College is named after Chawla. In addition, an award of INR twenty-five thousand, a medal, and a certificate is instituted for the best student in the Aeronautical Engineering department.
  • The Government of Haryana established the Kalpana Chawla Planetarium in Jyotisar, Kurukshetra.
  • The Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, named the Kalpana Chawla Space Technology Cell in her honor.
  • Delhi Technological University named a girls’ hostel block after Chawla.
  • A military housing development at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, has been named Columbia Colony, and includes a street named Chawla Way.
  • Hostel blocks in Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Sagar Institute of Research & Technology, VIT University, Samrat Ashok Technological Institute and Pondicherry University have been named after Chawla.
  • Kalpana Chawla Government Medical College (KCGMC) is a Medical College formed for women located in Karnal, Haryana, India named after Chawla.
  • Kalpana Chawla Chowk is a name given/dedicated to a crossroad in Borivli, Mumbai in memory of the astronaut.
  • The Kalpana One Space Settlement is named in her honor.
  • A block is named as Kalpana Chawla Block in her honor in ABES Engineering college Ghaziabad(Uttar Pradesh) India.

Additionally she posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, an honour awarded to any astronaut who in the performance of their duties has distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious efforts and contributions to the welfare of the Nation and mankind”. It is the highest honour awarded by NASA.


Kalpana Chawla’s life was cut short in a tragic incident just as she was at her prime, however in her forty years on this Earth she accomplished more than most of us can dare to dream of accomplishing in several lifetimes. Achieving what she did given her humble beginnings in life should be an inspiration to all of us: she embodied what it means to be a scientist – continuously and fiercly fighting to explore, to learn, to succeed. With a tenacity to rival all others, and in spite of systemic racism and misogyny, she fought for her childhood dream and bought it to fruition: she flew amongst the stars.


References are categorised by the following types:

🗒️ = Written 

🎧 = Audio

💻 = Video

[1]🗒️ Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalpana_Chawla

[2]🗒️ Space.com biography: https://www.space.com/17056-kalpana-chawla-biography.html

[3]🗒️ Rediff.com article on Kalpana Chawla: https://www.rediff.com/news/2004/feb/20spec.htm

[4]🗒️ Chawla, Kalpana (1984), MS Thesis Optimization of cross flow fan housing for airplane wing. installation, University of Texas at Arlington, p. 97

[5]🗒️ Chawla, Kalpana (1988), PhD Thesis Computation of dynamics and control of unsteady vortical flows., University of Colorado at Boulder, p. 147

[6]🗒️ NASA article on Kalpana Chawla: https://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/archives/sts-107/memorial/chawla.html

[7]🗒️ Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congressional_Space_Medal_of_Honor

[8]🗒️ Time of India article: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/NY-has-Kalpana-Chawla-Way/articleshow/775327.cms

[9]🗒️ India Times article: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/remembering-kalpana-chawla-the-woman-who-taught-girls-to-dream-of-wings/articleshow/62739190.cms

[10]🗒️ Photo of Kalpana Chawla: https://www.veethi.com/india-people/kalpana_chawla-photos-116-555.htm

[11]🗒️ Photo of Kalpana Chawla: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/kalpana-chawala-woman-who-loved-to-fly-all-about-indias-first-woman-astronaut-4572626/

Photo credit (NASA/Cesar Acosta)

Authors Note:  As a scientist myself, who is also of Indian ancestry, Kalpana Chawla is someone I most definitely look up to, and I pray that I can have even an ounce of the resilience and dedication to my own work that she had for hers. Daughter of India, I salute you, look over us, and fly forever!

For more information on POC scientists please visit our resources page or read through the rest of our blog. We are constantly updating both.

Written by Pruthvi Mehta. For more information see the about page or follow her on Twitter @q_the_ordinary.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: