When one starts talking about women who have made everyone proud globally, the list becomes endless. But, there are certain names that make us wonder about life and how we perceive it.
One such lady is Kalpana Chawla who saw everyone as a part of the entire universe, and not bound by any other parameter.
Hailing from a small town in Haryana, her dreams were colossal and she defined the term ‘sky has no limits’ for everyone.
She was truly a great woman, and here is all that you need to know about her.
Birth of Monto- March 17, 1962
Kalpana was born Monto in the Karnal district of Haryana, India. Her father is a self-taught engineer who now owns his own tyre manufacturing company, but was struggling when Monto was born. Her parents originally come from the Multan district of West Punjab (currently a part of Pakistan). She was youngest of four children (3 girls and a boy). She grew up in an environment where hard work was well appreciated, but also where women were supposed to be fragile and obedient.
Since her mother was brought up by an educated family, she made sure that her daughters received good education.
Monto to Kalpana
Monto was always a headstrong girl. During her admission to a nursery school, when the principal asked for the name to be filled on the admission papers, Monto’s aunt and her elder sister were confused between three names – Kalpana, Jyotsna and Sunaina. It was the little girl herself who asserted that she would like to be called Kalpana, which translates to imagination in English. And, indeed, it was the perfect fit for this girl.
Imagination and stargazing
During the summers when the family would sleep on the rooftop, Kalpana would stay wide awake stargazing all night. She would often try to reach them. Her heed to know more about the world beyond human reach would make her question everyone, but she never found a satisfactory answer. While making a physical geography map of India covering the floor of an entire classroom in her school, she covered the ceiling entirely with stars by putting dots on the blackened newspaper. Along with the stars, she also fancied the flying planes that she would often see flying close to her following the nearby aviation club, Karnal Aviation Club. She once coaxed her father into taking her there for just one ride, and she never completely let go of that journey. That was the first step of her new journey to reach the stars.
Despite the fact that Kalpana was never the class topper, she aimed for the sky. It was Nirmala Namboodripad, her science teacher, who made the subject interesting for her students. Kalpana was also enticed by poetry and English. She was a regular participant in the sports functions organised by her school, and came first in every race that she participated in. She was a born rebel. She would play sports like dodge ball, which were considered manly, and hence, she even cut her hair short.
Kalpana never wore any makeup and wore the same dress for three consecutive days at her sister’s wedding claiming that your clothes cannot define you.
At the DAV College, a teacher was teaching the students about the null set, and explained it by giving the example of Indian woman astronauts as till then no Indian women went to space.
Kalpana instantly said:
“Who knows madam, one day this set may not exist!”
She then took admission in Punjab Engineering College, even when her father was trying to lure her into becoming either a teacher or a doctor.
Merely seven girls took admission in the Punjab Engineering College and she was the only one who opted for aeronautical engineering. She would come to college in trousers, riding on a bicycle. She changed several hostels as she found no one good enough for studying and finally stayed alone in a room above the garage in a bungalow. After completing her graduation, she moved to the US and obtained an MSc. degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984. It was NASA that was on her mind next. So in 1988, she received her second master’s degree, and became a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado situated in Boulder.
Now all she wanted to be was an astronaut and travel the beyond. She finally joined NASA and started to work at NASA as Vice President of Overset Methods Inc. In 1991, she received the American citizenship and applied for NASA Astronaut Corps. In 1994, she was selected as an astronaut candidate where she received one year of training. Finally in 1997, Kalpana made her first outer space journey with space shuttle Columbia on flight STS-87 where she worked with robotic arms and was the mission specialist. She even deployed the Spartan satellite into the outer space. She explained her experience as:
“On one of the night passes, I dimmed the lights in the flight deck and saw the stars. When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system.”
The Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster
The morning of February 1, 2003 was a dreadful one. When the space shuttle was re-entering the Earth’s orbit, it met with an ill-fate. A system that protects the shuttle from heat and pressure when it returns to the Earth’s orbit broke off depressurising the entire shuttle. All the seven crew members including Kalpana Chawla died in that tragic accident. They were coming back after completing over 80 experiments.
In 1983, Kalpana married Jean-Pierre Harrison who was a flying instructor and aviation author in the USA. During her course of life, she received endless rewards including Congressional Space Medal of Honor, NASA Space Flight Medal, and NASA Distinguished Service Medal. Over the course of her two missions, Kalpana logged 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space.
Kalpana Chawla changed the course for many women during her own journey. She encouraged many women to enter the world that was considered male-dominated, and excelled there. She shattered the barriers of gender in every way possible. No words can ever be enough to explain what she has done for humanity. We hope that there will be more brave women like her.