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Celebrating Women in STEM: Dr. Kalpana Chawla

Friday, February 1, 2019 marks the sixteenth anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies in modern American history: the Columbia Disaster.

The space shuttle Columbia was lost on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, claiming the lives of seven NASA astronauts. Among the deceased was veteran astronaut Dr. Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman in space.

Dr. Chawla was born in Karnal, India, in 1962. She completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College in 1982, and moved to the United States to further her education.

She completed her Masters in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas – Arlington in 1984, and her Ph.D. at the University of Colorado – Boulder in 1988. While in graduate school, she married Jean-Pierre Harrison, who followed her around the country to support her dreams.

After completing her doctorate, Dr. Chawla began working at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. Her work focused on power-lift computational fluid dynamics. But Dr. Chawla wanted more: she wanted to be an astronaut.

She applied to NASA astronaut program in 1993, but was not selected. When she applied again in 1994, she was selected as an astronaut candidate in NASA’s 1995 class. She completed the year-long astronaut training program in Houston, Texas, and was selected for her first flight aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1997.

The mission spent two weeks in space, making over 250 orbits around Earth, and studied the effect of weightlessness on physical processes. Dr. Chawla served as the mission’s prime robotic arm operator. Upon returning to Earth, she continued to work for NASA’s shuttle program, eventually becoming the lead for the Astronaut Office’s Crew Systems and Habitability section.

In 2000, Dr. Chawla was selected for her second flight aboard Columbia, serving as a Flight Engineer and Mission Specialist. The last Columbia crew launched on January 16, 2003. The mission lasted 16 days, and the crew completed 80 experiments in zero-gravity during their flight.

Dr. Chawla worked on several experiments, including ones related to plant growth and fire quenching. After a successful science and research mission, the Columbia crew headed home. Sadly, they would never reach the ground.

Dr. Chawla logged 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space. She was also a Certified Flight Instructor and had her Commercial Pilot’s license. Though her career was ended too soon, Dr. Chawla received many honors posthumously.

She was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, NASA’s Space Flight Medal, and NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal. She has a memorial at the University of Texas Arlington College of Engineering, and has a scholarship and an award named in her honor.

There’s also an Indian satellite, an asteroid, and a hill on Mars named for her. President Trump honored her by name in a speech last year, saying, “Ms. Chawla’s courage and passion continue to serve as an inspiration for millions of American girls who dream of one day becoming astronauts.”

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Email President Lauren Higgins (lahn7d@mail.umkc.edu) for more information.


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