Kalpana Chawla

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Feb 1, 2003: Tragedy That Struck Kalpana Chawla's Space Shuttle Columbia  During its Re-entry

Kalpana Chawla, born on March 17, 1962, in Karnal, India and died on February 1, 2003, was the first Indian-born woman and second Indian person to fly in space. She was most known for being part of the Space Shuttle Columbia, when her and her crew died on entry, 15 minutes before landing.

Chawla changed her date of birth to July 1, 1961, so she could join school underage.  She first moved to the US in 1982. She graduated from Tagore School in Karnal, India in 1976. She received her Bachelor’s in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College, India in 1982, her Masters in Aerospace Engineering from University of Texas in 1984, and her Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado in 1988. She also achieved her second Masters in 1986, even after the Challenger disaster.

She first started working at the NASA AMES Research Center and did Computational fluid dynamics research. Once she became a naturalized US citizen in April 1991, she applied for the NASA Astronauts Corps and joined in March 1995. She was also awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. Her first space mission was on November 19, 1997, with a six-astronaut crew that flew Space Shuttle Columbia STS-87.

On her first mission, she traveled over 10.4 million miles, and deployed a Spartan satellite which ended up malfunctioning. Her second space mission was being part of the STS-107, which was repeatedly delayed due conflicts and technical problems such as the July 2002 discovery of cracks in the shuttle engine flow liners.

She boarded Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003, where she was responsible for microgravity experiments. However, during the launch, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the Space Shuttle external tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter. Although other shuttle launches had damage from foam shedding, the damage to Columbia was much more serious. Columbia later re-entered the atmosphere of the Earth, and this damage allowed hot atmospheric gasses to penetrate and destroy the internal wing structure, causing the spacecraft to become unstable and slowly break apart.

There are many honors and recognitions in place to especially remember Chawla. 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City has been renamed Kalpana Chawla Way in her honor. Florida Institute of Technology has one student apartment complex building called Columbia Village Suites, with halls named after each of the astronauts, including Chawla.

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