She did what no Indian-born woman had done before or has been able to do since, and she died while she was living her dream. Kalpana Chawla was born on March 17th 1961 in Karnal, a part of what is now the Indian state of Haryana. She travelled aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia to space and she was the onboard primary robotic arm operator and the mission specialist. She spent an impressive 31 days, 14 hours and 54 minutes in space; an achievement that not many people can claim to have done.
The braveheart met her untimely end, as did every other crew member aboard the Columbia, just before the scheduled conclusion of the mission when the space shuttle simply disintegrated over the American state of Texas while it was re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.
Chawla earned her Bachelor in Engineering degree from Punjab Engineering College with a specialisation in Aeronautical Engineering. She then moved to the US to achieve a degree in Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering in 1984 from the University of Texas at Arlington. Eventually going on to earn another Masters degree in 1986 and a subsequent PhD in Aerospace Engineering in the year 1988, the same year she started working with NASA.
An interesting anecdote is that Kalpana loved to draw aeroplanes as a child; little did anyone know the things she would go on to achieve while being in an aircraft, eventually perishing in one as well. Ironically, the meaning of her name in Hindi means ‘Imagination’, and she definitely lived all that she could have imagined and became an inspiration for countless Indian women and girls alike to pursue their dreams notwithstanding what society wants or expects from them. Personalities like Kalpana Chawla only but come very rarely, and she should be celebrated ever-so-much on this International Women’s Day by one and all.