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INSPIRATION UNLIMITED
MEMORIES TO CHERISH


 

Kalpana Chawla with AIA President Piyush Agrawal at the White House May 2002

The Association of Indians in America (AIA) joined the nation in its grief on the sad incident of the disintegration of the Shuttle Columbia in Space on Saturday, February first. AIA expressed its deepest sympathies and offered condolences to the families of Kalpana Chawla, Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon - the brightest and the bravest who made the ultimate sacrifice to serve the mankind.

We saluted them all for their courage and sacrifice on February 4th during a memorial service held at the Johnson Space Center in Houston presided by President & Mrs. Bush. At the invitation of the White House, AIA President Piyush & Mrs. Sudha Agrawal, Indian Ambassador to USA Lalit Mansingh, Consul General & Mrs. Skand Tayal, Deputy Consul General Mr. R.L.Koli, Houston Community leader Dr. Durga Agrawal and Minnesota Hindu Priest Prof Rambachan attended the Houston service.

"Mrs. Chawla was known among the AIA circles as a very charming and unassuming person," said Dr. Piyush C. Agrawal, National President of AIA. He further noted that he was very impressed by Kalpana Ji's friendly nature when he met her during the Asian American Heritage Month last May at the White House. "She represented a rare combination of accomplishment and modesty."

Modesty was one of the qualities everyone remembers about Kalpana, affectionately called KC by her fellow astronauts. Her colleagues always remembered that she did not have the brashness most astronauts possessed. According to Gopal Khanna, AIAs Vice President, Ms. Chawla truly represented the spirit of AIAs motto: "Indian Heritage and American Commitment."

Born and raised in the town of Karnal, Haryana, India, Kalpana Chawla's love for stars and for flying led to her career as a NASA astronaut. She earned a B.S. in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College in 1982. Moving to the U.S., she turned to aerospace engineering and received her M.S. from the University of Texas and her Ph.D. from the University of Colorado. Chawla joined NASA in 1995 and was assigned as mission specialist on the space shuttle STS-87 in 1997, becoming the first Indian-American woman to go into space. In completing her first mission, Kalpana Chawla traveled 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of the Earth and logged 376 hours and 34 minutes in space. Speaking about Kalpana, President Bush said, "She always wanted to reach the stars. She went there, and beyond." Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee also expressed his condolences to the Chawla family and the families of the astronauts who lost their lives alongside her on February 1, 2003.

The AIA family will sorely miss her.

From Karnal to Houston


By daring to dream differently, Kalpana Chawla became a source of inspiration for students.


IN Hindi and in Sanskrit `Kalpana' is a dream, a fantasy - something that belongs to the realm of imagination. The first and only Indian-American to reach space, Kalpana Chawla dreamt big, beyond the impossible.

The mud house in Model Town in Karnal, Haryana, where Kalpana was born on July 1, 1961, was sold by her family, which moved to Delhi. The present owner of the property, Vijay Setia, a family friend of the Chawlas, has converted it into an impressive white bungalow. He welcomes people to his house and shows them around. From the courtyard here Kalpana used to watch the stars and dream of reaching out for them. For Setia and the other residents of Karnal, Kalpana is a star who put their town on the international map.

Accounts provided by her family members and friends show that for Kalpana the journey from Karnal to Houston was a difficult one. The very first challenge before her was to prove to the world that being a woman did not rule out the option of a career in aeronautics. Says her first cousin Veena Chawla: "What kept her going was her determination and the spirit to not take no for an answer." Montu, as she is known to her family members, was the youngest of four children - three girls and a boy. Her father Banarsi Lal Chawla came to India following Partition, from Sheikhopura in West Punjab. The family tried its hand at several businesses in Amritsar before moving to Karnal, which is 126 km from Delhi. There they began manufacturing rubber belts and tyres.

Says Veena Chawla: "It was obvious from the start that the girls in the family had made up their minds that they would not follow the conventional path of getting married early and settling down. They wanted a career for themselves. Kalpana being the youngest, was fortunate as all the battles in the male domain were fought by elder sister Sunita." In an interview ahead of her first space flight, Kalpana said that although the academic part was intriguing, flying was sheer fun.

Kalpana's teachers in Karnal remember that even as a student of the Tagore Bal Niketan from where she passed out in 1976 she was interested in flying. Recalls her teacher Daljeet Madan: "She was fascinated by airplanes and preferred to make them in the crafts class. In school she was always amongst the first five. I expected her to do well. I still remember her face when in Class VIII she told me that she had gone for her first glider ride."

In an interview she gave before the latest Columbia mission, Kalpana recalled how she and her brother would be on their bikes, trying to see where the airplanes were headed. She said: "We'd ask my dad if we could get a ride in one of those planes. And he did get us a ride on the Pushpak and a glider. I think that's really my closest link to aerospace engineering. Also, growing up, we knew of J.R.D. Tata, who flew some of the first mail flights in India, one of which now hangs in an aerodrome out there. Seeing this airplane and just knowing what this person has done during those years definitely captivated my imagination."

In Houston, Kalpana got herself a certificated flight instructor's licence with airplane and glider ratings besides commercial pilot's licences for single and multi-engine land and seaplanes, and instrument rating airplanes. Married to Jean Pierre Harrison, a freelance flying instructor, Kalpana liked to spend her free time performing aerobatics and flying tail wheel airplanes. She enjoyed hiking, back-packing and reading - apparently Alexander Solzhenitsyn was her favourite author. Devotional music of Sufi saints and classic rock of the 1970s British band Deep Purple, inspired her. Columbia's debris included sound tracks of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Ravi Shankar and Hariprasad Chaurasia.

Kalpana Chawla's achievements did not come easy. When she joined the Punjab Engineering College (PEC) in Chandigarh she faced disapproval not only from home but also from the college's department of aeronautical engineering. She was one of only seven young women in the whole college and the only woman to have taken up aerospace engineering. The department tried to shift her to the electrical or mechanical departments but had to relent when Kalpana refused to budge. Says professor S.C. Sharma of the PEC: "In class she was aware of the fact that she was the only girl. She would often say, if the boys can do it then why can't I?'' Recalling Kalpana's passion for flying, Sharma said: "On one occasion I asked the class how many students had seen the movie Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Kalpana had seen it and she insisted that she would arrange for the entire class to see it. She booked a restaurant with a television and a videoplayer. In the 1980s, it was difficult to find such a place but at the end of the day the entire class thanked her for showing them the movie."

Dr. Sharma, who was one of Kalpana's referees when she applied to universities in the United States for her master's degree, says that she stood out in her class when it came to organising seminars and discussions. A good academic record and active involvement in the PEC's Aero and Astro Society assured her easy admission into American universities. After securing an admission with assistantship in the University of Texas-Arlington, Kalpana had a tough time persuading her family to allow her to go abroad for higher studies. Consequently, she joined the session several months late. After completing an M.Sc. in Aerospace Engineering from Texas in 1984, she went on to take a doctorate in the same subject from the University of Colorado in 1988.

In 1988, Kalpana joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Ames Research Centre to work in the area of powered lift computational fluid dynamics. Her research concentrated on the simulation of complex air flows encountered around aircraft types such as the Harrier in "ground effect". Following the completion of this project, she assisted research in the mapping of flow solvers to parallel computers, and the testing of these solvers by carrying out powered life computations. Her next break came in 1993 when she joined Overset Methods in California as a vice-president and research scientist to form a team with other researchers specialising in the simulation of moving multiple body problems. She was responsible for developing and implementing efficient techniques to perform aerodynamic optimisation.

Selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in December 1994, Kalpana reported to the Johnson Space Centre in March 1995 in the 15th such group. After a year of training and evaluation, she was assigned to be a crew representative to work on technical issues for the astronaut office. In 1996, her career touched new heights when she was assigned as the mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on STS-87, the fourth microgravity payload flight. The focus here was on experiments designed to study how the weightless environment of space affects various physical processes and observations of the sun's outer atmospheric layers.

Kalpana's work in the mission became a source of a minor controversy when a satellite malfunctioned. In trying to grab it, she nudged it away from Columbia and was blamed for closing the arm too quickly. The satellite was retrieved by undertaking a space-walk. The entire crew was blamed for not recognising a chain of errors that led to the events. But Kalpana was cleared by NASA to fly aboard Columbia for a second time in less than five years.

Kalpana's duties on STS-107 included making sure that all the systems worked nominally. She would check the different meters and displays in an organised fashion to diagnose any malfunctions and respond to them, helping the commander and the pilot to undertake necessary procedures.

Her teachers in school and college recount how, despite her busy schedule, she kept in touch with the students. Said Madan: "It was because of her efforts that every year since 1998 two students from Tagore school have been visiting NASA." The students would recount stories of how Kalpana "didi" made Indian meals especially for them.

In her last message to the students of the PEC, Kalpana advised them not only to dream but to work towards making those dreams possible. In an e-mail message she wrote: "The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it. Wishing you [a] great journey."

In Chandigarh, her professors now recount how after her first mission a large number of young women were inspired to opt for Aerospace Engineering. This is no small contribution in a State where, even in the year 2003, the birth of a girl child is hardly cause for celebration.



kalpana : any desire of the present or future, also refers to imagination or fantasy.

I pretty much had my dreams, like anybody else and I followed them. People around me fortunately always encouraged and said 'if that's what you want to do carry on'." Kalpana Chawla , just prior to leaving on her last mission.

IT IS EASY to spot Kalpana Chawla in pre-flight pictures of the ill-fated Columbia shuttle mission. While her crewmates looked snug in their lumpy orange suits, Kalpana looked like hers was two sizes too large.

Her smallish frame belied the credentials of a career astronaut who, until Saturdays tragedy, seemed destined to reach greater heights in NASAs male-dominated hierarchy.

At 41, Kalpana held a doctorate in aerospace engineering, a commercial pilots licence, a flight instructors licence, had racked up seven years of experience at the distinguished NASA Ames Research Center and as vice president of a private research company.

On her first shuttle mission in 1997, she had logged 376 hours and 34 minutes in space, exceeding even the celebrated first American woman in space -- Sally Ride.

In that mission, also on the Columbia, Kalpana, apart from other research duties, was in charge of the 50-foot robot arm that was to release a US$6 million payload the Spartan satellite.

Though she released Spartan from the robot arm in time on November 21, officials said it appeared small control jets failed to activate, leaving the satellite without the ability to orientate itself.

Kalpana attempted to recapture the glitchy satellite, but failed. Headlines in India back then suggested she had goofed. NASA refused to assign blame suggesting there were problems with the satellite itself. The satellite, which on earth weighs 3,000 pounds, was later recovered by two crewmates manually on a spacewalk, and Kalpana successfully aided them with the arm to berth it back in the shuttle.

The difficulties with Spartan had left her wondering how NASA officials and co-workers would respond once she returned. Her fears were unwarranted.

"Some of the senior people, the very senior astronauts, shook my hand and said, 'K.C., you did a great job. Don't let anyone tell you different,'" she related in an interview.

That NASA was to commit Kalpana for a second mission was testimony to their continued faith in her ability.

DARING TO ASK

For many Indian migrants and the vast diaspora of nomadic seekers in or bound for foreign shores in search of a better life, the enduring legacy of Kalpana Chawla will always be that of the prodigal daughter made good.

To her NASA peers, she was simply known as K.C., an acronym stemming most likely from the inability of most Americans to pronounce her name correctly. (For the record, its KULL-pah-na CHAO-la, "kull" rhymes with "hull", "pah" rhymes with "pa", "CHAO" rhymes with "ciao".)

To her family she was affectionately known as montu.

Kalpana was a youngest daughter of tire factory owner Banarsi Lal and housewife Sanyogita. She was a strict vegetarian and a Hindu from Karnal, Haryana, about 76 miles from New Delhi, India.

In an interview with an Indian weekly, her mother recalls expecting a boy instead of a girl, but out came Kalpana, who has achieved more than a boy could."

In a society where independence in a young girl is disdained, Sanyogita said her youngest was very tomboyish and used to cut her own hair, never wore ironed clothes and learnt karate. A neighbour related that she loved to play cricket with the boys and wear trousers. Her brother Sanjay pronounced: From childhood she was different.

Her teachers remembered her as an extrovert and always among the top five students in class. She drew airplanes and colourful charts and models depicting the sky and stars and harboured dreams of flight.

In pre-flight interviews of the Mission STS-107, she seemed to have lost none of that child-like fascination for space: Just looking at earth, looking at stars during the night part of Earth, just looking at our planet roll by and speed at which it goes by and the awe that it inspires, just so many good thoughts come to my mind when you see all that. Doing it again is like living a dream, a good dream once again," she said.

On completing her pre-university from Dayal Singh College in Karnal, the headstrong Kalpana made up her mind that she planned to study aeronautical engineering at Chandigarh, a city 80 miles away (and now fast gaining recognition for churning out a pool of information technology graduates in the vein of Bangalore and Hyderabad.)

The move caused the expected uproar among the relatives, given the conservative, traditional settings of the time. Kalpana simply packed her bags and threatened to go. Her mother relented.

Of her parents, Kalpana explained: They are conservative, but very different from lots of other parents. For example, my father never gave me a hard time on career choices. There wasn't any, 'No, absolutely not.' You could always say, 'But, I want to do it.' If you said it enough times, then you would have it. In families that are truly conservative, you don't even dare ask."

Of her mother she said: I think I wouldn't even call my mom conservative, though she is from a conservative family, and I think everyone thinks of her that way. But as far back as I can remember, she's always said that you really must do what pleases you."

"When I joined (Punjab Engineering College), there were only seven girls in the whole college. I was the first girl to go into aerospace engineering. The department chair kept trying to channel me into electrical or mechanical, and I thought, This is weird, why is he trying to do that?" On her insistence, she was allowed her choice.

Kalpana graduated in 1982 and the move to the United States was inevitable. Again, sending an unwed daughter abroad alone was going against traditional grain. The compromise was sending brother Sanjay as a chaperon until she was settled.

In the US, she met Jean-Pierre Harrison, a freelance flying instructor, and struck up an immediate friendship. She was soon off for scuba diving and hiking adventures and revelled in long flying trips.

Sanjay was informed of developments and prevailed upon his parents when Kalpana said she wanted to marry Jean-Pierre. They wed in 1984, the same year she graduated from University of Texas with a masters in aerospace engineering.

She was then accepted for a doctorate program in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Cruelly, fate had set her in the tragic footsteps of another alumnus of the university Ellison Onizuka, who died when the Challenger exploded on Jan 28th, 1986.

LOOP-THE-LOOPS AND BARREL ROLLS

Away from her research, Kalpana was also realizing her first love -- learning how to fly. "I like airplanes, it's that simple. The theoretical side is mentally challenging but flying for me is sheer fun. It appeals to all my senses," she said in one interview.

Kalpana enjoyed flying aerobatics, thrilling friends with loop-the-loops and barrel rolls in tailwheel airplanes (airplanes with a third wheel under the tail).

As a child in Karnal, she spoke of riding out to the flying club with her brother to see Pushpak airplanes, which were similar to Piper Cubs used in the US to teach flying, and having tasted her first ride on one, after haranguing her dad. She recalls also seeing the original airplane used by Indias civil aviation pioneer the late JRD Tata, who headed the Tata group, for early mail flights.

Seeing this airplane and just knowing what this person had done during those years was very intriguing. Definitely captivated my imagination. And, even when I was in high school if people asked me what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, she said.

Kalpana counted Patty Wagstaff, a three-time U.S. National Aerobatic Champion, and Peter Matthiessen, a travel chronicler as among those who inspired her, but also paid tribute to her teachers in high school in India. It's easy for me to be motivated and inspired by seeing somebody who just goes all out to do something, she said.

On graduating from UC-Boulder in 1988, Kalpana started work at NASA Ames Research Center in the esoteric area of computational fluid dynamics. Her research concentrated on simulation of complex airflows encountered around powered-lift aircraft such as the Harrier Jumpjet. In 1993 Kalpana Chawla joined Overset Methods Inc, Los Altos, California, a company specializing in aerodynamic optimization.

SMALL STEP, GIANT LEAP

Then came the call from NASA. In December 1994, Kalpana was one of the final 19 from 2962 applicants and reported to the Johnson Space Center for training the following March as an astronaut candidate in the 15th Group of Astronauts.

Her acceptance was unprecedented and vaulted her into the limelight in India. She was Indias first woman astronaut and first Asian-born woman to be chosen.

Kalpana described it then: It was very far-fetched to think I'd get to fly on the space shuttle -- because I lived in India, in a very small town. And forget about space, I didn't even know if my folks were going to let me go to the engineering college.

"But I think everybody fantasizes. And I definitely did my fair share. During the Mars mission, even though the Apollo Program had already passed, the things I fantasized that we are leaving Earth, that we're going to Mars, we've landed on Mars, that we have our little spaceships, and we're moving around in the canyons out there," she said.

Kalpana was assigned as mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on STS-87 and was in space for 16 days from November 19 to December 5, 1997. She had travelled 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of the Earth.

Being a vegetarian, her meals in space were well-documented: rice pilaf, tortillas, broccoli au gratin, garden split-pea soup, nuts and dried fruits, cheese spread and tea with cream and sugar.

Musically, it was pointed out she had fondness for Raga Mishra Piloo, played by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and was awakened by it in the mornings in space.

On STS-107 she carried 20 CDs including Deep Purples Machine Head and Purpendicular, both selected because they had aviation/space-related songs, and albums by several Indian musicians including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia and of course, Ravi Shankar.
Kalpana also carried a banner sent by Punjab Engineering College students where she graduated two decades back, during her last space mission.

The students had said in their message: "As you prepare to take a walk among the stars, this note comes from your alma mater to tell you how proud your achievements make us feel. The wishes and affection of your juniors will always be with you as you cut across the sky into the serenity of space."

The message proved to be her epitath.

Perhaps, photographs in newspapers around the world -- of the shiny shards of Columbia streaking across a clear, blue sky -- were the appropriate final images to remember her by.

Kalpana Chawla lived her life like a comet. She seized life with a vitality that shone through her natural smile. She profoundly affected everyone she came in touch with here on Earth as a wife, daughter, sister, student, friend, colleague and role model.

And she never really cared if the suit didnt fit. As our hero, she filled it well.

Compiled and written by Julian Matthews. The story is copyrighted by Trinetizen Media but is free to be used for publication purposes in its entirety. Photos courtesy of NASA and SAJA.

Endnote: This story is dedicated to every Indian migrant who has left his or her motherland in search of a new life.

This goes out to every migrant who struggles with the language and the cultural shock and social norms in a foreign land; to the one whose degree and work experience has been ignored and whose every application for a job is replied with the standard We regret to inform you

This goes out to the factory manager, the doctor and the MBA holder, now forced to drive a taxi, or sell insurance through cold-calling or vacuum bank floors late at night.

This goes out to the one who has gone down on her hands and knees to wash toilets, or stand behind a counter all day and ask each customer inanely whether they want the small, medium or large Coke with their burger.

This goes out to the one who feels so alone and alienated and cold in the darkness of their 30 sq ft room and breaks down in tears from callused hands, aching feet and sore backs, longing for mums cooking, the banter of a close friend, the warmth of a hug.

In Kalpana's spirit, we each live in hope of being able to distinguish the mud from the stars, and may we reach out for one, one day and claim it as our own.

Houston (Texas), Feb. 1: Dr Kalpana Chawla, the Indian American who was flying on the doomed US space shuttle Columbia for a second time, carried with her a silk banner paying tribute to her school teacher whom she had lost touch with, Nirmala Namboothiripad.
 
Kalpana, who became the first Indian-American astronaut flying to space on the same space shuttle on November 19, 1997, was a student from Karnal in Haryana, who always dreamt of flying.Hailing from a traditional middle class family, Montu, as she was fondly called, was the youngest of four children. Even as a young girl, she was sketching and painting airplanes. At her school, Tagore Bal Niketan in Karnal, she made colourful charts and models depicting the sky and stars. For her Class XI project, she wrote a paper on Mars.
Egged on by her father, Banarasi Lal Chawla, a refugee who made his fortune selling soaps in Sonepat, she joined the Karnal Flying Club. She also refused to opt for medicine as a career.
 
When she decided to join the BSc course in Punjab University in Chandigarh, she happened to be the only girl in the Aeronautics batch.
 
She enjoyed flying, hiking, backpacking, and reading. She held a Certificated Flight Instructors licence and Commercial Pilots licences for single and multi-engine land airplanes and single-engine seaplanes, instrument rating, and Private Glider. She enjoyed flying aerobatics and tail-wheel airplanes.
 
She did a BSc in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College, 1982 and completed her MSc in Aerospace Engineering from University of Texas in 1984 and her Doctorate of Philosophy in Aerospace Engineering from University of Colorado in 1988.
 
Kalpana was hired by MCAT Institute, San Jose, California, as a research scientist to support research in the area of powered fin at Nasa Ames Research Centre, California, in 1988.
 
She was responsible for simulation and analysis of flow physics pertaining to the operation of powered lift aircraft such as the Harrier in ground effect.
In 1993 Chawla joined Overset Methods Inc., Los Altos, California, as vice-president and research scientist to form a team with other researchers specialising in simulation of moving multiple body problems. She was one of more than 2,000 applicants for a civilian scientists position on Columbias voyage.
 
According to Nasa, her academic accomplishments, physical fitness and experience as a pilot made her a natural choice. Carving her identity in an otherwise mens domain she comfortably rubbed shoulders with her male colleagues.
 
She was selected by Nasa in December 1994, and reported to the Johnson Space Centre in March 1995. She lifted off to space on November 10, 1997.
Kalpanas teachers remember her as an extrovert. Father Banarsi Lal and mother Sanyogita live with the rest of the family in a south Delhi apartment. On Saturday, all that the shellshocked family could say was We cant believe it is happenning.
 

Indian-Born American Astronaut Was Heroine in India

NEW DELHI, India Front pages of Indian newspapers Saturday 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 on Saturday night.
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."