After completing her death-defying acts and tasks in space for the first space mission in Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87, Kalpana Chawla was once more keen to defy gravity and escalade towards outer space. In the years from 2000-2002, space shuttle Columbia was once more selected to zoom into space for further experiments and tests and photographs of earth. In the interim years, Kalpana was assigned to work in technical domains in NASA astronaut office. She excelled in those too. However, Kalpana`s final space mission in STS-107 turned tables of every crew on board, which has now become historical.
Normally, any astronaut who has gone to space once is not too keen to enter it again, as by this time, he is fully aware of the hazards involved in space flights. But Kalpana was keen to go to space again. Often, she said she would like to be part of the first team that landed on the planet Mars, where NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) plans to set up a base in the coming decades.
Such was her urge that Kalpana was even ready to join the team going to the Red Planet whose return was not guaranteed. In fact, she always expressed the wish that she would prefer to die in space among the stars.
The NASA astronauts are not free to simply enjoy their celebrity status once they are back on earth. They all have to work in the NASA Astronaut Office at Houston. Of course, most astronauts opt out of active service, some join Mission Control in an advisory capacity, others take up bureaucratic work involving liaison with industries, laboratories, schools and colleges and some join the training programmes. After her return to the NASA Astronaut Office, Kalpana Chawla also distinguished herself in her ground duties. NASA gave her a special award for doing the work of two persons simultaneously in two completely different areas.
However, only a few astronauts keep open the option of going again into space and Kalpana was one. So, one day when she received a telephone call from a Mission In-charge asking her about the tasks she was busy with, she gave all the details. However, when the In-charge wondered whether she would still have time for another space mission, she was surprised and delighted and agreed immediately. Kalpana was selected as a Flight Engineer and Mission Specialist for her second and final space mission. Now, she finally had the designation of `Flight Engineer` which was her long-cherished childhood ambition.
The Space Shuttle STS-87 Mission - Kalpana`s first space flight - was more or less for gaining experience in manoeuvring men and equipment in space. It was a part of the preparations for the construction of the International Space Station. On the other hand, the Space Shuttle STS-107 Mission, Kalpana`s second space flight was a purely scientific mission. All the astronauts even participated in some medical experiments conducted on their own bodies. There was an all inclusive laboratory called `Spacehab` - approximately 7 metres long, 5 metres wide and 4 metres high - containing furnaces, instruments, test-tubes, cameras and computers. It was maintained at the atmospheric pressure required for scientific experiments and was specially built and installed inside the Payload Bay of the shuttle. It was connected directly to the Mid-deck of the shuttle through a tunnel. Incidentally, the 23-year old Columbia was again selected for the STS-107 Mission.
Although, this second and ironically final space mission was delayed by several months as the shuttle underwent checks and re-checks. There was also an eleventh hour delay in the launch as even after donning their spacesuits all astronauts had to wait for three hours before they could enter the shuttle. For this mission, Kalpana had specially selected music CDs of Abida Parveen, Pt. Ravi Shankar
and some American musicians in consultation with Jean Pierre Harrison, her husband, for the morning wake-up call. She was also carrying specially designed mementos from her school, engineering college, National Science Centre, Nehru Planetarium and the Aero Club of India. She also carried a white silk banner dedicated to her teachers. It had picture of a girl bowing before her teacher.
On this mission Kalpana Chawla`s companion astronauts were Commander Rick Husband, Pilots Laurel Clark and David Brown and Payload William McCool, Mission Specialists Commander Michael Anderson, who were all Americans. The Payload Specialist was Iian Ramon, who was the first Israeli astronaut to go into space. Due to the fear of a terrorist attack against Ramon this particular mission had considerably tighter security.
During the launch of the Columbia on January 16, 2003, some material known to have been `foam` and `snowball` from the external tank was observed to have fallen on the tile-covered wing of the shuttle causing a minor crack. But at that juncture, when the boosters had been fired and there was no way to stop them, this incident was ignored. The crack was felt to be of no great danger to the safety of the shuttle. As the subsequent events showed, it proved to be the cause of the fatal accident. Nevertheless, the shuttle was safely placed in an orbit of the earth at the altitude of 274 kilometres for the next 15 days at an angle of 39 degree to the equator of the earth.
During the entire final space mission, eighty scientific experiments were conducted aboard the shuttle, of which Kalpana Chawla was exclusively responsible for performing twelve. Again, the purpose of the experiments was observing how living beings, materials and other phenomena behave in the absence of the disturbing effect of the earth`s gravity and atmosphere.
Incidentally, Kalpana`s basic task in her final ill-fated space mission was to study the reaction of a candle flame. Using the sophisticated facilities available in the Spacehab, Kalpana studied the chemical reactions occurring in a candle flame. She also analysed how a flame produces soot and other emissions, including pollutants, so that it could be optimally harnessed for mankind, for fire is the driving force of all engines and industrial plants. Her studies would directly benefit the fabrication of more effective engines especially for aircraft and industries. She also studied how fire could effectively be brought under control and extinguished especially in closed spaces, such as, libraries, aircraft, ships and spacecraft, using the cheaper water mist sprays. This could lead to the development of a new fire-fighting technique. It would replace the present ones that use harmful chemicals, such as, halons, which damage the ozone layer.
Apart from these main experiments, Kalpana Chawla also conducted experiments to create in space conditions, new pure and flawless alloys, silicon chips, crystals and proteins. She grew different types of cell cultures which would give insights into fighting prostrate cancer and improving crop yield. She also studied how granular structures compress together, which would help in building stronger foundations for buildings in areas prone to earthquakes, floods and tornadoes.
Kalpana also lent a helping hand in other experiments in progress aboard the shuttle, namely, observing the behaviour of giant ants, fish, spiders, bees, silkworms and rodents and the blooming of roses and rice flowers. Her work span in her final space mission diversified her progress, as well her fellow astronauts`, who were assigned for different tasks. These interesting experiments, which were selected by NASA after considerable review, were submitted by school students from Australia, China, Israel, Japan and USA. Besides, all the astronauts were kept under observation for medical experiments. As soon as the Orbiter had stabilised in space, they swallowed calcium tracers. The effect of weightlessness on the functioning of various body systems, namely, cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary, musculoskeletal and immune, was observed during their stay in space. As Flight Engineer for the mission, Kalpana`s duties included checking the functioning of all systems aboard the shuttle in a systematic manner, diagnose any malfunction and rectify it. On occasions, she also had to assist the Commander in various navigational tasks.
Kalpana conducted all the experiments successfully except for the failure of one furnace soon after the shuttle entered space. She switched on a video camera so people on earth could see what she was doing and she transmitted the results to Mission Control in Houston as the experiments progressed. The final space mission was gradually turning to an end, with every work being done to the extent expected. The shudder was yet to dawn on STS-107.
Meanwhile, every single astronaut conducted conversations and conferences with their respective governments and families. Talks were also on with members already within the International Space Station. The last message to be received from the shuttle was: `Our mission is successful and we are all fine`. Kalpana also sent what proved to be her last e-mail to a friend marvelling at the beauty of the Nile River from space. The last video scene transmitted by the shuttle to Mission Control showed all the astronauts cracking jokes and teasing each other and happily strapping themselves to their seats to prepare for their return to earth.
The final space mission for Kalpana Chawla and others had successfully ended in space. The space tasks were over, and it was time to look down towards earth. For a fortnight they had orbited the earth at an altitude of 360 kilometres in space at the hypersonic speed of 26,000 kilometres per hour and conducted several scientific experiments successfully. Now, Commander Rick Husband turned around the huge aeroplane-like, black and white tile-covered Space Shuttle Columbia by firing its smaller, thruster jets for the return journey to earth. It was 8 o`clock on the morning of February 1, 2003. From their vantage point in space, they could see the huge, bluish Indian Ocean covered with whitish wisps of clouds right below them. Their destination - the runaway near Cape Canaveral of the Kennedy Space Centre, approximately 50 minutes away - was on the other side of the earth. With the shuttle`s tail pointing toward the earth, the Commander frequently fired its main engines like brakes, to reduce its orbiting speed so that the shuttle descended slowly into the thin, upper terrestrial atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the five other astronauts aboard the shuttle had packed their bags and strapped themselves to their seats, cracking jokes and exchanging smiles, eagerly awaiting their landing on earth. The moment of meeting their families , all gathered at the Kennedy Space Centre to view the touchdown , seemed not too far away. Shortly, after firing its thruster jets for manoeuvring, the shuttle started descending like a glider through the atmosphere, which grew denser with the falling altitude. The friction of its huge body against the denser atmosphere produced tremendous heat. Consequently, the temperature rose very fast as the shuttle descended through the atmosphere.
Radio contact with Mission Control in Houston was resumed fifteen minutes later when the shuttle was cruising at an altitude of 63 kilometres, with its nose tilted at a 40-degree angle exposing only its belly to the raging atmospheric heat. The shuttle was then gliding over San Francisco Bay and was hardly sixteen minutes away from its scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Centre`s runway. At that very moment, the sensors aboard the twenty-three-year old shuttle indicated to Mission Control some temperature anomalies over its left wing and also a reduction of pressure in one of its tyres. That was perhaps the first serious detection of malfunction in the final space mission aboard STS-107, amidst its last minutes to landing.
However, before Mission Control could issue a warning to the Commander, the shuttle was engulfed in a ball of fire. Two loud booming sounds were heard as the orange-ish yellow ball of the shuttle split apart across the early morning blue sky of Texas. Shortly, the two glittering points of light broke into more shining fragments as they glided down to fall like a hot hailstorm over a huge region of Texas and its neighbouring states. In less than five minutes, the shuttle had broken into more than a thousand pieces and all the seven astronauts aboard were dead in mid-air. For the first time in the history of space flight, a spacecraft had met with such a tragic end while landing back on earth.
In the early morning hours of February 1, 2003, just sixteen minutes before the scheduled landing, Columbia broke apart into two pieces over the state of Texas and all seven astronauts met a fiery death. Their blackened bodies were later recovered among the debris of the shuttle scattered over the states of Texas and Florida. Kalpana Chawla`s final space mission would now be rewritten in history, with everybody elevating her to a true position of a brave heart.
While the shuttle was approaching the earth with perfect weather landing conditions at Cape Canaveral at the scheduled time of 9:16 A.M., several thousands of kilometres away on the other side of the earth, the wintry night had already set in over the small town of Karnal (hometown of Kalpana Chawla in Haryana
). That afternoon, the students of Tagore Baal Niketan Senior Secondary School had begun celebrating a historic event in their new school premises. The event was the return of a former student from a space flight for the second time. A few years ago, in 1998, the same student had become the first Indian woman astronaut to go into space. Overnight, she had become a national heroine. Everyone was looking forward to her promised visit to the school after her return from space.
Then, everyone fell silent as the news of the disaster of the Columbia started trickling in over the television channels. Kalpana`s final space mission had turned into a charred disaster, with little trace of anybody on-board, ending dismally in the darkness of space. As everybody watched in shock, the news channels began to report that it was still not clear whether the astronauts were dead or alive. Finally, late in the night, news channels confirmed that all the astronauts were dead and everybody broke down.
Rarely does a happy event to mark a historic occasion turn into a moment of grievous tragedy for an entire nation. Next morning India mourned the sudden loss of her first woman astronaut. She was Kalpana Chawla, the popular Kalpana Didi at her school. The memory of Kalpana would now be forever associated with space and stars. That is the place she wanted to conquer, and that is where she has found her final rest. It was a tragic and heartbreaking end to a heroic career. Kalpana died where she had wished to end her life - in space. Her body was cremated and as she had wanted, the ashes were scattered across the National Park at Utah and over the Himalayas.