Kalpana Chawla was a NASA astronaut. She holds the distinction of being the first Indian American woman and woman of any Indian descent to go to space. Chawla flew on two space shuttle missions; her second mission was the tragic Columbia disaster.
Chawla was born in Karnal, India in 1961. She earned a Bachelor of Engineering degree Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College. After moving to the United States in 1982, she earned two more Master’s degrees and a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering. She became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991 and then applied for the NASA Astronaut Corps.
Chawla was chosen as an astronaut candidate in 1994, and flew her first shuttle mission in November 1997. Chawla was a Mission Specialist responsible for operating the shuttle’s robotic arm. In 2000, she was chosen for her second mission into space, and after several delays she launched aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in January 2003. The crew completed over 80 experiments during their 16 day spaceflight. When the shuttle entered the atmosphere to land at Kennedy Space Center, the wing broke off, and the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated. Chawla and the six other crew members were killed.
Chawla’s legacy lives on. An asteroid and a hill on Mars bear her name. India renamed their meteorological satellite to Kalpana-1 after her death. Buildings, scholarships, and awards at her alma maters and worldwide have been dedicated in her name, continuing to inspire the next generation of astronauts.