Kalpana Chawla had an indeed redefining educational career, starting from India and extending to the top universities in the United States. She became well-known and admired to every institution she went. However, Kalpana`s move in NASA can be called the most significant and crucial stint, from when her dream to fly beyond the earth took firm shape. After finishing her Ph.D. in 1988, Kalpana Chawla joined the MCAT Institute, San Jose, California, as a Research Scientist for a project of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center. Here, she did simulation and analysis of air flows around aircraft using powerful supercomputers like Cray. Five years later, she joined Overset Methods Inc, Los Altos, California, as Vice President and Research Scientist. Kalpana headed the team that worked on how to optimise designs of aircraft by simulating the complex air flows encountered around them and studied the stability of fluids under conditions of very low gravity.
Although flying was her first love it was rather intensified in the company of Jean Pierre Harrison, Kalpana`s husband. She developed the inner urge to become an astronaut and travel in space. This was precisely the dream Kalpana harboured while in NASA. The walls of her hostel rooms in Chandigarh
, Texas and Colorado were always covered with pin-ups of astronauts, spacecraft and space shuttles. Anyone with her computer expertise could have easily secured a cosy job in the Silicon Valley, but not Kalpana. When she saw the NASA advertisement for the selection of astronauts in aviation and space trade journals, essential qualifications being a bachelor`s degree and three year related experience, she decided to try. Harrison supported her decision, though it meant giving up his job of a flying instructor at the flying club in California and shifting to Houston, where the NASA trained their astronauts. Later, the couple also decided not to have children, as it would affect her career as an astronaut.
Kalpana Chawla`s first attempt in NASA was a partial failure. She was not selected when she applied the first time. It was only in her second attempt that she passed the written test, was called for an interview and selected for the job. When she received the call letter from the NASA Astronaut Office in December 1994, she rang up Harrison, who was out of town, and left a message on voice mail. In her excitement she simply said, `I`m in!` For some time Harrison could not understand what she meant and had to ring her back to check.
She was one of five women of total 23 astronauts selected out of 2962 applicants that year. She was also among seven non-Americans and the only civilian to be selected. She had to undergo a series of medical and psychological tests and interviews. During the process of selection, even a watch is kept on the behaviour of the applicants during their stay in the NASA hostels. Apart from qualifications and experience, the qualities that NASA looks for in an astronaut are: character, integrity, intelligence, team spirit and even public speaking skills. Kalpana excelled in all these. Chawla`s initiation in NASA thus set about a historical beginning, the end of which was truly unimagined and unprecedented.
In March 1995, Kalpana joined the NASA Astronaut training camp at Johnson Space Center at Houston. It lasted for fourteen months and during the training, the participants are called `Astronaut Candidates` (ASCANS). It is only after the completion of the rigorous training that the candidates are given the Astronaut designation. The astronaut training consists of several parts. Firstly, a theoretical knowledge of space flight, namely navigation and astronomy are imparted. Then, hands-on experience with various systems of the Space Shuttle, their repair and maintenance; undergoing space-like conditions of vacuum and zero gravity in artificial simulators and even high altitude flying. Undergoing high acceleration conditions experienced during take-off in flight simulators; training in the mock-ups of a Space Shuttle, practising various manoeuvres and undergoing emergency drills. Besides, astronauts are also tested for their physical endurance, stamina and survival skills in a crisis. For instance, they are dropped into the sea, over mountains and jungles by boats or aeroplanes without food and water and have to find their way back on their own. Here, Kalpana`s outdoor adventures with Harrison came in handy and she came through with flying colours.
Becoming a NASA astronaut does not guarantee a journey into space. That opportunity is offered to a few astronauts depending upon the requirements of a space mission. At the NASA Astronaut Office, astronauts perform many kinds of tasks from looking into the feasibility of scientific experiments submitted for execution in space, to liaison with industries, laboratories, schools and colleges. They take classes, train astronauts and man the Houston Mission Control to share their experience and know how to deal with astronauts in trouble in space. These initial hurdle stages were smoothly and effortlessly passed by Kalpana Chawla, to begin her eventful chapter while in NASA.
When on December 7, 1996, Kalpana received a phone call from the former Mission Specialist and astronaut David Leestma asking her if she was interested in working for him, she knew she had been selected for a space mission. Finally, her dream of a space flight would come true.
Kalpana had been selected for the Space Shuttle mission, called Space Transportation System-87, where 87 was the Flight tail number. It was called `STS-87` in short. Columbia, named after the first American ship which circumvented the earth, was the shuttle selected for the mission. It was due to be launched in November 1997. She was selected as its Mission Specialist and Prime Robotic Arm Operator. After a lifetime of striving Kalpana knew she would become the first Indian woman in travel to space and her name would now be a part of Indian history. It had been a long journey from Karnal into outer space. Truly, Kalpana Chawla`s journey into NASA turned towards a constructive direction, the direction she had longed for, only to create further history. In 2000 Kalpana Chawla was handpicked for her second flight, as part of the crew of STS-107. This mission was stayed back time and again owing to scheduling conflicts and technical inconvenience, like the July 2002 discovery of cracks in the shuttle engine flow liners. On January 16, 2003 Kalpana eventually returned to space aboard Columbia on the doomed STS-107 mission. This shocking affair though did bodily terminate Kalpana`s journey in the universe, but she shall always be remembered as that heroic lady who fought every fear to pursue her passion in the world as well as in NASA.