Women in Space: Kalpana Chawla
STS-107 Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla suits up for launch. Credit: NASA

Women in Space: Kalpana Chawla

05/10/2021Written by Eleanor Morton

The first Indian woman in space, Kalpana Chawla.

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mascot Telescope Right
Kalpana Chawla Official Astronaut Portrait. Credit: NASA

Kalpana Chawla is often remembered in the context of one of space travel’s great tragedies, the Columbia disaster of 2003. During which Chawla and her crew perished on entry due to damage with the internal wing structure that caused the shuttle to break apart. But this isn’t her whole story.

She was a pioneer. The first Indian woman to go to space, her groundbreaking work in NASA’s research and development team helped to guide space travel through the decades.

Born in Karnal, India, on 17 March 1962, Kalpana grew up with a fascination for flying and airplanes. She joined local flying clubs in Karnal and would watch planes with her father. This fascination for flying encouraged her to get a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College in India in 1982 and was a passion she followed throughout her career.

In 1982 Chawla followed her love of flying to the United States where she studied for a Master’s degree in Aerospace engineering from the University of Texas and went on to receive a PhD from the University of Colorado in the same field.

But it was after achieving her numerous degrees that her love for space travel truly developed.

Early Days at NASA

Early Days at NASA
Kalpana Chawla, astronaut candidate working at NASA Ames. Credit: NASA

Chawla’s career at NASA began in 1988 when she worked at NASA’s Ames Research Centre as a powered-lift computational fluid dynamics researcher. Computational fluid dynamics is used to predict different properties of aircraft, such as drag and lift, and how this will affect the performance of the system. This research is critically important when it comes to launching spacecraft to be able to fully understand how the spacecraft will react in its environment. Chawla’s work focused on simulating air flows around the aircraft which was incredibly complicated in 1988 before the modelling software we have today.

During her time at NASA’s Ames Research Centre, Chawla also worked on simulations for Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) for aircraft to determine how these manoeuvres would affect the wing of an aircraft in different scenarios. This research is most famous today for being used by the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during its vertical landings, but Chawla was one of the NASA team to utilise this research for space exploration.

Space Shuttle Missions

Space Shuttle Missions
The crew of Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107. Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Missions
STS-107 in-flight crew portrait in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Credit: NASA

During her time in research, Chawla became a US citizen which allowed her to apply for NASA’s astronaut corps in 1991. In 1994, Chawla was selected for the corps and reported to the Johnson Space Centre in 1995 to begin training. A year later in November 1996 she was assigned her first mission, STS-87, aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. Chawla would act as mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator. Launching on STS-87 Columbia, Chawla became the first woman of Indian origin to go to space, spending 15 days and 16 hours on the shuttle. During the mission Chawla performed experiments to study the effects of weightlessness and observed the Sun’s outer atmosphere with the use of satellites.

It was her second space flight in 2003 that would go down in history, aboard STS-107 Columbia. After being selected for her second mission in 2001, Chawla returned to space in 2003. During the mission the crew performed approximately 80 experiments working for 24 hours a day in two shifts. They studied Earth, space science and astronaut health and safety.

On 1 February 2003, after a further 15 days and 22 hours in space, Chawla and her crew headed back to Earth. However, due to a malfunction during launch, where a piece of foam insulation struck the wing of the shuttle, the shuttle disintegrated during re-entry and Chawla and her crew sadly lost their lives, 16 minutes before the shuttle was due to land.

A Legacy That Lives On

A Legacy That Lives On
Kalpana Chawla preparing for STS-107. Credit: NASA

Kalpana Chawla’s life was one marked by tragedy, something she is generally remembered by, but she should also be remembered for her determination, pioneering spirit and incredible research. By following her love of flying in the air and in space, she has inspired countless others to follow in her footsteps in space exploration and research. So whilst her death should be remembered, we shouldn’t forget to celebrate her extraordinary life.

About the author: Eleanor Morton graduated from the University of Leicester with a Masters in Physics. She is an aspiring science writer and can be found on Twitter @ElMortonSci.