First Indian-born woman in space was heroine in homeland
By Laurinda Keys
NEW DELHI, India Front pages of Indian newspapers today carried pictures of Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman in space, to celebrate her expected return to earth on the space shuttle Columbia.
The return never happened after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart about 203,000 feet over Texas minutes before it was to land in Florida.
"What can anyone say except that we are aghast at the terrible tragedy," said V. Sundararamaiah, scientific secretary of the Indian Space Research Organization.
In India, which has launched satellites for years and is preparing for a moon orbit this decade, Chawla was a new kind of heroine.
Just before she lifted off on the Columbia space shuttle for her second trip to space, she told reporters that her inspiration to take up flying was J.R.D. Tata, who flew the first mail flights in India.
"What J.R.D. Tata had done during those years was very intriguing and definitely captivated my imagination," Press Trust of India quoted her as saying on Jan. 16.
After her first flight in 1997, she had told News India-Times of seeing India's Himalayan Mountains and mighty rivers from space.
"The Ganges Valley looked majestic, mind boggling," she said. "Africa looked like a desert and the Nile a vein in it."
Chawla was born 41 years ago in Karnal, about 80 miles north of New Delhi, in northern Haryana state. She emigrated to the United States from India in the 1980s and became a U.S. citizen.
Chawla's parents, two sisters and sister-in-law had gone to the United States to watch her flight, a family friend, Arun Sharma, said outside the home of her brother, Sanjay, in New Delhi.
Sanjay Chawla was watching TV news when he heard about the disaster, and was unable to make any comment, Sharma said.
The town's residents had planned a celebration, but were in shock and mourning.
Some 300 children at the Tagore Bal Niketan school that Chawla attended had gathered for an evening of song and dance to celebrate the expected landing of Columbia, said Principal Rajan Lamba in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
"A happy occasion turned into an atmosphere of disbelief shock and condolence," Lamba said.
Press Trust of India had calculated exactly when Indians could look to the skies and wave as the space shuttle carrying mission specialist Chawla flew past in the heavens. PTI told readers in southern Bombay and Madras which minute of the day they could hail their countrywoman.
The Times of India put her picture at the top of the front page in Saturday morning's editions, saying she and her crew mates were preparing for their homecoming.
Chawla graduated from the Tagore School in the mid-1970s and later received a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College.
After moving to the United States, she earned an advanced degree in the same field from the University of Texas and a doctorate in her specialty from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the late 1980s.
She became an astronaut in 1994. On her first space flight, she was blamed for making mistakes that sent a science satellite tumbling out of control. Other astronauts went on a space walk to capture it.
India Today magazine reported that NASA had absolved Chawla, rating her a "terrific astronaut," and saying the accident had resulted from a series of small errors.
On her 1997 flight, Chawla said that as the shuttle repeatedly passed over India, especially New Delhi, she pointed it out to the other crew members and said, "I lived near there."