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HomeBlogKalpana Chawla's Incredible Journey: From Small Town India to the Final Frontier

Kalpana Chawla’s Incredible Journey: From Small Town India to the Final Frontier

You grew up dreaming of the stars, gazing up at the night sky and imagining what it would be like to soar high above Earth’s atmosphere. For you, space exploration represented humanity’s spirit of discovery and progress. Little did you know that one day you would blaze a trail for women in space as the first Indian woman in space. Your name was Kalpana Chawla, and this is the story of your incredible journey from a small town in India to the final frontier.

Early Life and Education: The Making of a Future Astronaut

Early Life in Karnal, India

Kalpana Chawla was born on July 1, 1961 in Karnal, India. She was born to Banarasi Lal Chawla and Sanjogta Chawla, a family of modest means. From an early age, Kalpana showed a keen interest in science and aviation. She was fascinated by aircraft and spent hours building models of planes. Her parents encouraged her dreams and desires to pursue higher education.

University Studies and Inspiration

Kalpana earned her bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College in India in 1982. She went on to pursue a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984 and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1988. While at the University of Texas, Kalpana was inspired by the STS-1 launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Witnessing this monumental event instilled her dream to become an astronaut.

After completing her doctorate, Kalpana began working at NASA Ames Research Center in California as a researcher in computational fluid dynamics. Her work involved simulating airflow around aircraft and spacecraft. Kalpana later joined Overset Methods, Inc. as vice president and senior scientist. She continued refining her knowledge and skills in preparation to fulfill her goal of space travel. Through hard work, perseverance, and dedication, Kalpana’s lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut finally came to fruition.

Becoming an Astronaut: Kalpana Chawla’s NASA Career

To become an astronaut, Kalpana Chawla had to overcome immense challenges and persevere in the face of obstacles that would have deterred most. Her acceptance into the NASA training program in 1994 was a testament to her unparalleled determination and excellence in her field.

Becoming an Astronaut Candidate

Out of 2,962 applicants, Chawla was one of only 35 selected for the astronaut training program. The selection process was arduous, including medical tests, interviews, and peer evaluations. Chawla’s technical brilliance, physical fitness, and unflinching dedication ultimately earned her a spot in this elite group.

Intensive Training

As an astronaut candidate, Chawla underwent two years of intensive training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, including instruction in space shuttle systems, spacewalking, robotics, physiology, and Russian language. She completed parachute jumps, wilderness survival training, and space shuttle landing simulations.

### First Mission: STS-87

In 1997, Chawla traveled to space for the first time as a mission specialist aboard STS-87, the fourth mission of the U.S. Microgravity Payload program. During the 15-day mission, she conducted experiments in microgravity and spacewalking. Her skill and professionalism were instrumental to the success of this groundbreaking mission.

Through perseverance, excellence, and an unwavering spirit, Kalpana Chawla overcame immense adversity to become the first Indian-born woman in space. Her awe-inspiring journey serves as an inspiration and testament to human achievement. Though tragically cut short, her legacy lives on as an enduring reminder of all that can be accomplished through determination and a dream.

Kalpana Chawla’s First Space Mission: STS-87

Kalpana Chawla’s first space mission was as a mission specialist on STS-87 aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997. This was the 24th flight of the Space Shuttle program and the fourth mission of Columbia. The mission launched on November 19, 1997, and landed back on Earth 15 days later on December 5, 1997.

The primary mission objectives of STS-87 were to conduct microgravity research, deploy and retrieve the SPARTAN satellite, and conduct spacewalks. Chawla’s responsibilities as a mission specialist included operating the remote manipulator system (a robotic arm) to deploy and retrieve the SPARTAN satellite, monitoring and controlling the payload operations, and operating other experiments.

On her maiden voyage to space, Kalpana Chawla made history as the first Indian woman in space. During the mission, she traveled over 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of the Earth. In a post-mission interview, Chawla spoke about her experience in space, saying “You have a different perspective of the Earth, of life itself, of your own self when you see the whole Earth as a tiny speck in the whole universe. And you realize that you are part of the whole universe.”

Chawla’s first mission to space was a success and helped pave the way for her second and final space mission aboard STS-107 in 2003. Though her time in space was cut tragically short, Kalpana Chawla continues to inspire people around the world as a symbol of courage, perseverance and following your dreams. Her memory lives on through the Kalpana Chawla Award for Courage and Daring, awarded each year by the government of India.

Return to Space: Kalpana’s Final Mission on Columbia

On January 16, 2003, Kalpana Chawla embarked on her second space mission as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Columbia. As part of STS-107, Chawla was excited to conduct scientific experiments in microgravity. Little did she know this would be her final mission.

Preparing for Launch

In the months leading up to the launch, Chawla trained extensively with her fellow crew members to prepare for the rigorous mission. As a mission specialist, her role was to oversee the operation of shuttle systems and ensure the success of the scientific experiments on board. The experiments focused on areas like astronomy, atmospheric science, biological science, combustion science, fluid physics, and technology development.

The Tragic Accident

Tragically, on February 1st, just 16 minutes before Columbia was scheduled to land in Florida, the shuttle broke apart upon reentering the atmosphere over Texas. All seven crew members perished in the disaster, including Chawla. The accident was caused by damage to Columbia’s left wing during launch, though this was unknown at the time. The wing overheated and failed structurally, causing the shuttle to break up at high altitude.

Legacy and Tribute

Chawla’s death was mourned in both the U.S. and India. She received numerous posthumous honors celebrating her pioneering spirit, including the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Her life serves as an inspiration, demonstrating how perseverance and determination can help one achieve seemingly impossible dreams. Though her time in space was cut short, Chawla’s journey from small-town India to the stars reminds us all that there are no limits to human achievement when we pursue our goals with passion and dedication.

The Columbia Disaster and Legacy of Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla’s 16-day mission as part of the crew of STS-107 tragically ended on February 1, 2003 when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere. All seven crew members aboard the shuttle perished. The disaster was caused by damage to Columbia’s thermal protection system during launch, though the damage was unknown to mission managers until the accident investigation.

The Final Mission

On January 16, 2003, Chawla launched into space aboard Columbia on mission STS-107, her second spaceflight. The mission was dedicated to science, with the crew conducting nearly 80 experiments in areas such as astronomy, space science, and life sciences. Chawla operated experiments on microgravity and its effects, and served as a mission specialist.

Tragically, on February 1, 2003, Columbia and its crew perished during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. A piece of foam insulation broke off from the external tank during launch and damaged the shuttle’s left wing, allowing hot gasses to penetrate the wing during reentry. This caused the shuttle to become unstable and break apart, killing all aboard. The debris fell across Texas and Louisiana.


Chawla’s death was mourned in India and abroad. She received several posthumous honors recognizing her contributions to human spaceflight. She continues to inspire millions as the first Indian woman in space. Her life serves as an inspiration, especially to young girls pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Though her final space mission ended in tragedy, Chawla’s perseverance in the face of immense challenges and her passion for space exploration live on. Her memory reminds us of all that humanity can achieve when we pursue our dreams with hard work, courage and determination. Chawla pushed on through barriers both seen and unseen, and her incredible journey from a small Indian town to the stars themselves will continue to motivate and inspire.


As you have read, Kalpana Chawla lived an extraordinary life that took her from a small rural town in India to the furthest reaches of space. Her relentless pursuit of her dreams in the face of obstacles and setbacks is an inspiration. Though her time on this planet was cut tragically short, her legacy lives on. She opened doors for women and inspired countless girls around the world to pursue careers in science and technology.

Kalpana Chawla’s journey from Karnal to NASA and her ultimate sacrifice aboard Columbia reminds us all to follow our passions, push the boundaries of human achievement, and make the most of the precious time we have. Though we may never make it to space ourselves, we can all channel the perseverance, courage, and curiosity that Kalpana embodied. Her star burned brightly during her time with us, and its light will continue guiding us to new horizons.