Kalpana Had Thought of Death in a Crash

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NEW DELHI, Feb. 3 (UPI) — India-born Columbia astronaut Kalpana Chawla had told her brother that if she had to die, she hoped it would be in a crash.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that her words haunted her brother Girish as he flew from Atlanta to Houston to join the rest of bereaved Chawla family.


“I am shocked, stunned,” Girish Chawla said. “She was a very determined person. She was totally dedicated to her profession.”

Girish Chawla and his wife Harvinder Gill were woken by a call from relatives in India to say that Columbia had broken up some 200,000 feet above Texas and about 16 minutes from when it was to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“I said, ‘Oh, no. I can’t believe it,’ ” Gill said. “I came hurriedly down the stairs and turned the TV on. There it was — on the TV.”

Kalpana Chawla’s father Banarsi Das, mother Sanjogta, and her two sisters and a sister-in-law had recently come from India to witness the Jan. 16 launch of Columbia from Cape Canaveral.

Her India-born brother Sanjay Chawla too is scheduled to fly to Houston to join the devastated family.

Kalpana lived for the very event she died in. In pre-flight interviews, she had described the ascent, re-entry, and landing of the spacecraft as the most exciting and enjoyable moments of the space odyssey, The Times of India reported.

Kalpana Chawla, 42, born in north Indian town Karnal, had immigrated to United States in 1984 to pursue master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.

She saw herself as a citizen of the world and following her debut space flight in 1997, she described how spinning around the Earth in just 90 minutes gave her a sense of belonging to the whole planet and not just any one country or community, the newspaper reported.

Kalpana remained in touch with her first school and engineering college. Her school in Karnal, Tagore Bal Niketan, had named its science room after her, the first Indian woman astronaut.

A condolence meeting was held Monday at the Panjab Engineering College in Chandigarh where she graduated before moving to United States to do her Masters in aeronautical engineering.

She became India’s national heroine in 1997 after her first foray into space. She made it to the cover of India’s leading weekly India Today last month.

She has dominated the newspaper headlines for the last two days in India, overshadowing major political events. She has found an immediate fame and recognition after her death.

India’s junior federal minister I D Swami announced the foundation of a medical college cum hospital in Karnal. The Haryana state government declared a two-day mourning period in her memory and all government offices, schools and colleges remained shut Monday as a mark of respect to Kalpana Chawla.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in a message to U.S. President George W. Bush, said, “We convey our heartfelt sympathies at the tragedy, which has overtaken the space shuttle Columbia. We mourn with you in this moment of grief and our hearts go out to the families of the bright young men and women who worked on the spacecraft.”

“For us in India, the fact that one of them was an Indian-born woman adds a special poignancy to the tragedy,” he said.

“We in India had been specially proud that our own Kalpana Chawla was part of this space mission. Alas, we have tragically, though heroically, lost her. We are proud of you, Kalpana, we salute you,” India’s President A.P. J. Abdul Kalam said.

Chawla was flight engineer and mission specialist aboard the shuttle Columbia. She graduated from Punjab Engineering College before beginning work at NASA Ames Research Center in fluid dynamics.

She received a master’s degree in 1984 from the University of Texas, and in 1988 received doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado.

NASA selected Chawla as an astronaut candidate in 1994, and she joined the 15th group of astronauts in March 1995.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.