Kalpana Chawla was born in 1962 in Kamal, Punjab, India. Perhaps it was foresight that made her parents name her “Kalpana”, meaning “idea” or “imagination”, because while other girls her age liked playing with dolls, Kalpana preferred to draw airplanes and had an inquisitive mind. After getting a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College, she moved to the United States in 1982 where she earned a master’s in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington in two years. Undeterred by the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, Kalpana went on to earn a second master’s and then a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1988. Later that year, she started work as a NASA scientist, researching power-lift computational fluid dynamics. She joined Overset Methods, Inc. in 1993 as a research scientist as well as vice president. She was also rated as a flight instructor and held commercial pilot licenses for airplanes, gliders, and seaplanes.
When she succeeded in being naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1991, Kalpana had applied for the NASA Astronaut Corps; she was accepted and began training in 1995, and was soon scheduled for her first space shuttle mission, joining the six-astronaut crew of the space shuttle Columbia. The two-week mission in late 1997 circled the Earth 252 times, and she was in charge of deploying a Spartan satellite using a robot arm; Kalpana had become the first Indian-born woman and the second Indian person ever to fly in space. After the mission, she did technical work for NASA relating to the space station. She was chosen for a second mission in 2000, but technical problems with the shuttle engine prevented it from going forward. At last she returned to space in 2003 aboard Columbia, but after a 16 day mission involving more than 80 experiments by the seven-astronaut crew, the shuttle, which had sustained heat shielding damage to a wing upon launch, did not survive re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, and the entire crew was lost. Kalpana was posthumously awarded Congress’ Space Medal of Honor; scholarships were established in her name, and an asteroid was named after her.