Kalpana Chawla was born on 17 March 1962 in Karnal, Haryana, India. Called “Montu” by the family, she chose the name “Kalpana” at age three years old upon starting school. She attended Tagore Bal Niketan school, followed by Dyal Singh College and DAV College for Women, all in Karnal. Kalpana had decided on a career in aeronautical engineering at an early age, and in furtherance of this ambition attended Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh.
In 1982 Kalpana went to the USA to undertake a master’s degree programme at the University of Texas at Arlington, followed in 1984 by a doctorate programme at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Despite the loss of space shuttle Challenger in January 1986, she decided to apply for the NASA astronaut corps once she became eligible. After graduating in 1988, she took up a research scientist position at NASA Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, California.
In the shadow of Ames’ massive wind tunnels, Kalpana specialized in computational fluid dynamics to develop methods to predict the behaviour of air as it flowed around aircraft. She simultaneously earned various pilot and flight instructor qualifications at a flying club in nearby Palo Alto. In 1993, Kalpana responded to a NASA announcement for astronaut candidate applications. We found out later that she had made it fairly far along the selection process, but was not chosen that year. She reapplied in the summer of 1994 and that December received an invitation to join the 1995 NASA astronaut candidate class.
In February 1995 we moved to Houston, Texas, whereupon Kalpana started the astronaut training programme. Her class graduated one year later, and in November 1996 Kalpana was assigned to the STS-87 mission aboard space shuttle Columbia. The mission flew in November – December 1997 during which Kalpana spoke with Prime Minister Inderjit K. Gujral from orbit. After a two-year interlude, she was assigned to the STS-107 mission in the summer of 2000. This mission launched on 16 January 2003 aboard space shuttle Columbia. After a very successful flight, Columbia was lost with its crew during reentry into Earth's atmosphere on 1 February 2003.
Kalpana’s name has been given to a hill on Mars, a star in deep space, college, scholarships, and awards. Her story is an example of the success that can be earned from hard work and persistence, and her life serves as an inspiration to Indian school children and youth who see themselves reflected in her.