"When you look at the stars of the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but the solar system."
A young girl from Haryana's Karnal town dared to dream big. Named Kalpana Chawla, she became a source of inspiration for millions of girls in India by becoming the country's first female astronaut.
She had a long way to go, and the entire world was waiting for the Columbia Space Shuttle to return to Earth after finishing their expedition. However, it was not meant to be as it disintegrated while entering the planet's atmosphere on February 1, 2003, killing all seven crew members in the process.
The fateful day sent shockwaves all around. While Chawla's life ended tragically, she continues to motivate young girls never to stop dreaming and work hard to pursue their passion, and nothing will prevent them from doing so.
An Extraordinary Journey
Chawla broke the glass ceiling with her unconventional choices from a very young age. She enrolled at Punjab Engineering College to pursue Aeronautical Engineering; a rare career path women undertook in the 1980s. According to The Quint, no girls' hostel in the wing housed young women studying the course. Nonetheless, Kalpana Chawla soldiered on and got her Bachelor's degree in 1982.
In the same year, she got admission into the University of Texas, where she obtained Masters of Science (MS) in Aerospace Engineering two years later, in 1984. The next few years, 1986 and 1988, proved to be monumental as Chawla went on to study the subject further and received a PhD in the same from the University of Colorado.
Daring To Dream
In 1988, Kalpana Chawla first joined NASA to research in the area of powered-lift computational fluid dynamics. Four years later, she applied to become a part of the Astronaut Corps and got selected in 1994. Reporting from Houston's Jackson Space Centre, she began her training by learning to do spacewalks, sustain oneself in zero-gravity, and crisis management in space.
The years 1996 and 97 were forever etched in history as Kalpana Chawla became the first Indian-born woman to travel to space. Onboard the Columbia STS-87, the crew researched the space's weightless environment and the Sun's outer atmospheric layers. The expedition lasted for 15 days, during which she had an in-length conversation with the then Indian prime minister, IK Gujral, who lauded her achievements for making the country proud.
After returning to Earth in September 1997, Chawla was just 40 years old when she became a part of the crew for her second space mission in 2003. The STS-107 conducted successful experiments over 16 days, after which it was gearing up to return.
February 1, 2003, was a day the entire world was waiting for with bated breath. With everyone's eyes peeled to their television screens, everyone was excited to welcome the astronauts back to Earth. For India, it was a proud moment that they wanted to relive.
Unfortunately, fate had other plans for the space shuttle. On entering the Earth's atmosphere, hot air entered into the shuttle's wing that caused all the damages, resulting in its eventual disintegration just 16 minutes before landing.
The crew's untimely demise broke numerous hearts across the world. The country mourned Chawla's death as many looked up to her with hopes and dreams in their eyes. Nonetheless, she continues to live in India's hearts. Her alma mater, Punjab Engineering College, named the girls' hostel after her. Chawla was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honour and NASA Space Flight Medal for her contribution in this field.
Kalpana Chawla's journey continues to prove that ambition knows no boundaries. Anyone can dream big and is capable enough to work hard to achieve what they want in life.
Also Read: Chandigarh University Gets 'Kalpana Chawla Research Centre' To Train Students In Space Science