Kalpana Chawla smiles for the camera from the flight deck of STS-107 Columbia in 2003.

442: The First Indian Woman to Blast Off Into Space

Kalpana Chawla’s love of flying took her far—until it ended in tragedy

Kalpana Chawla smiles for the camera from the flight deck of STS-107 Columbia in 2003.

National Archives Catalog

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Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

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As a young girl, Kalpana Chawla (1962-2003) loved flying and dreamt of becoming an aerospace engineer. She followed that dream, shooting for the moon, and as the Norman Vincent Peale saying goes, landed among the stars, to become the first woman of Indian origin—and second Indian person overall—to go to space. Tragically, she is more commonly associated with being among the seven crew members who died in 2003 when the STS-107 Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry.

Chawla’s journey into the cosmos began in Karnal, in the Indian state of Haryana, where she was born. Growing up, her father took her to the local flying club, where she got her first experiences with small aircraft, according to Space Center Houston. “A pilot agreed to take us for a ride,” her father Banarasi Lal Chawla recalled in a 2020 interview with the Indian news outlet News18. “Kalpana's joys knew no bounds. She had always wanted to fly."

Kalpana Chawla was meant to take flight. In the interview, her father said she spent her free time in school folding and flying paper airplanes. As she got older, her focus on paper airplanes shifted to spaceships as she went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College—something she was adamant about even though, according to her father, professors discouraged her because there was “no scope for this subject in India.” Chawla immigrated to the United States in 1982 to further her education. She received a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas in 1984 and a doctoral degree in the same field from the University of Colorado in 1988.

The same year she completed her doctorate, Chawla started at the NASA Ames Research Center. There, in addition to her own research, she also supported others’ research projects. According to NASA, she joined Overset Methods Inc. in 1993 as a research scientist and vice president. In the midst of all of this, Chawla also became a U.S. citizen.

Kalpana Chawla poses for a photograph in the mid-deck of the STS-87 Columbia. Courtesy of National Archives Catalog
Kalpana Chawla poses for a photograph in the mid-deck of the STS-87 Columbia. Courtesy of National Archives Catalog

In 1994, she returned to NASA when the agency selected Chawla as a candidate for its 15th group of astronauts and she reported to the Johnson Space Center in March 1995. She took her first trip into space on Nov. 19, 1997, on the STS-87 Columbia. While on board, Chawla and her shipmates orbited Earth 252 times—traveling a total of 6.5 million miles in 15 days. Her second voyage to space was aboard the catastrophic 2003 Columbia mission.

Learning was important to Chawla. Despite growing up in a community where girls rarely stepped outside city limits for higher education, she attended college about 80 miles away and later emigrated to further her schooling. According to the News18 interview, her father encouraged this not because of the education or breaking tradition but because “I just wanted to give her everything she wanted,” he said.

She also paid it forward, spending money she earned at NASA to promote education in others, particularly helping underprivileged kids go to school. She reached out to those who weren’t able to complete their education due to financial constraints and did what she could to help. In 1998, Chawla started a tradition of sending two students from India to NASA each year so they could learn about the agency, its purpose, and how it worked.

Chawla was part of the selection and interview process and helped send 14 Indian students to NASA.

Following her death, Chawla was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. In addition, several streets, universities and institutions in the United States and India (where she’s considered a national hero)—as well as a crater on the moon and a hill on Mars—have also been named in her honor.

Published on November 26, 2022

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Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.