Kalpana Chawla: A passionate and inspirational scientist remembered.
Those who knew Kalpana Chawla say she was a funny, but quiet
person - until she started talking about science. Then the small, dark-haired woman, whom many called "KC," would smile, sometimes
laugh, and expound with great enthusiasm about her work.
"When she talked about her research progress to me, then she
literally spent a lot of time talking about her achievements and her progress," remembers C.Y. Chow, the now-retired CU aerospace
engineering professor under whom Chawla earned her doctorate in aerospace engineering in 1988.
"When she spoke she was very sort of deliberate," adds Stein
Sture, associate dean for research at CU's College of Engineering and Applied Science. "When she spoke she didn't really waste
a comma. Everything she said was very purposeful and carefully planned. She was not your typical astronaut, not the flashy
On February 1, 2003, Chawla and six other astronauts would not
be remembered as "typical" at all, but rather as fallen heroes of space exploration and mankind's continued pursuit of knowledge
about the outer limits of existence. Sixteen minutes before the STS-107 Columbia's scheduled landing, the space shuttle was
destroyed during re-entry.
When Miriam Maslanik learned of the disaster, she cried. "I
didn't know what to do with myself," says Maslanik, who befriended Chawla while the two were pursuing their doctorate
degrees. "I thought, 'This can't be happening. It's going to be okay, they're going to be okay. This is just debris.'"
abounded about what caused the accident, and one of the most prevalent was that a suitcase-sized piece of foam struck the
shuttle's left wing and damaged a critical heat shield. However, on Aug. 26, 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board
released a 248-page report that indicated, among other things, that the foam was not to blame but rather that "a breach in
the shuttle's Thermal Protection System allowed superheated air to penetrate through the leading edge insulation and progressively
melt the aluminum structure of the left wing."
The report also criticized NASA's bureaucratic culture, saying
that the accident was not a random event, but rather "a result of the spaceflight program's culture, which had as much to
do with the accident as the foam did." The report also found that "NASA's managers allowed practices detrimental to safety
Maslanik believes that Chawla "knew the risks" of space travel,
because she was more concerned with making headway into new scientific knowledge. "I had tea with her once, and she wasn't
afraid," Maslanik says. "She loved what she did. I think if she was looking down at us, she would say, 'All right, this is
enough, get back to science.'"
Chawla was born in Karnal, India, and while a student in her
native country, she apparently developed a love of flying. She earned her bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering in
1982 from Punjab Engineering College in India. After immigrating to the United States, Chawla attended the University of Texas,
where she earned her master's degree in aerospace engineering in 1984.
When Chawla came to CU, Maslanik remembers that her friend started
her doctoral program in mechanical engineering. But after taking Chow's aerospace engineering course, Chawla made a decision
that Maslanik calls "pretty risky and pretty gutsy."
"She changed her major a year into her Ph.D. program, even
after she had funding for mechanical engineering," Maslanik says. "Most people don't do things like that because it might
seem disloyal, or it might seem that you don't know what you're doing and can't succeed. She figured out what she wanted to
do and she went for it. I was really nervous for her at the time and so proud of her for doing it."
As study partners, Chawla and Maslanik would do their homework
separately and then compare answers. "I always knew that if her answers were different from mine that I had to go back and
look at mine again," Maslanik recalls. "If we disagreed with the (teaching assistants), she and I would go argue with them
because we always had it right and they didn't. It was kind of funny."
CU's space program began in the late 1940s and early 1950s with
the launching of sounding rockets. Since then, CU-Boulder has developed a close relationship with NASA and other institutions
that promote space research.
"CU has for many years had a lot of NASA involvement through
research contracts and grants, including fellowships for students," Sture says. "At any one time, you'd probably see over
100 different research projects at the university, some quite large, some quite small."
In 1988, Chawla joined NASA's Ames Research Center in the South
San Francisco Bay area, where she studied complex air flows encountered around aircraft. She continued doing research in the
area of powered-lift computational fluid dynamics until 1993, when she became vice president and research scientist at Overset
Methods, Inc., in Los Altos, Calif.
NASA selected Chawla as an astronaut candidate in December 1994.
Maslanik remembers being a reference for Chawla's security clearance and wondering whether her answers about her friend were
believable. "They asked me if she did drugs - no; if she drank alcohol - no," Maslanik says. "I was afraid they might think
I was lying because nobody could be that perfect, but she really was a very good person. She was honest, hardworking and a
good role model for everybody."
Because she held a certificated flight instructor's license
and a commercial pilot's license, Chawla was prepared to meet NASA's requirement that mission specialist applicants have at
least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft. She was also required to pass a NASA Class 1 space physical,
which specifies that, among other things, astronauts have 20/70 vision or better uncorrected, blood pressure that measures
140/90 in a sitting position and height between 64 and 76 inches.
As an astronaut candidate, Chawla spent a year training for
a space shuttle mission. She was required to read manuals and take computer-based training lessons to learn how to use the
shuttle's Orbiter systems ranging from propulsion to environmental control. Learning the shuttle's vehicle operations associated
with the major flight phases (prelaunch, ascent, orbit operations, entry and landing) was also a significant part of the training.
Additionally, Chawla learned how to handle weightlessness in a controlled neutral buoyancy water tank that simulates the zero
gravity condition of space.
Her first flight mission was in 1997 on the STS-87 Columbia.
On her second and final Columbia flight, Chawla spent two weeks operating student projects that were built and tested at CU-Boulder.
Those projects were designed to study the mechanics of raw materials in space, says Sture, who was assisting with the research
project from Kennedy Space Center when the Columbia perished. The flight was postponed for about a year because of mechanical
testing and scheduling problems, so when the Columbia finally launched, Sture says the crew was "optimistic." He remembers
how meticulously Chawla would describe her observations of the experiments.
"She was a tremendous human being, highly accomplished and dedicated,"
Sture says. "But she was still very much connected to her family and her past. She came from a very poor region in India,
and the fact that she made it all the way to her graduate studies here and into NASA is really unprecedented."