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'She has done us proud, beyond limits'

By Shahid K Abbas in New Delhi
February 03, 2003 01:48 IST
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Sanjay Chawla, brother of Kalpana Chawla, and her only relative still in India, spoke to in New Delhi:

"Her achievements itself speaks volumes. Truly speaking I have no words. One thing is that she has done us proud, beyond limits. And, I think, subconsciously, we were all aware that this is the price that we might have to pay.

"The last we spoke to her was two or three days prior to her launch. She said she was calling just to pass a quick hi to everybody.

"I was present during her first launch and the way I was made to understand the details about the shuttle, about the flight, I was convinced that it is a very, very dangerous type of a mission. [The] risk factor is very high and there is no scope for any recovery from even a minor mistake.

"A similar accident took place, exactly in an identical manner in 1986. I have seen some of the clippings of that accident. So, naturally when your own sister is into it and you have seen such a film then it does get registered somewhere in your mind that this could also happen [to her].

"There are all sorts of people. There are people who would like to play very, very safe in life. It is different with these astronauts. To be an astronaut it is like being a super human being. You have to be the best, and I have no idea how many levels of excellence that is.

"To be thoroughly educated. Physically absolutely fit. And most importantly you have to remain prepared to face a moment like this. And, as far as I know the astronauts, and the few that I have talked to, or the few that I have read about including my sister --- they all love it. They love this kind of risk.

"Right from the day she got herself admitted into the aeronautics engineering institute, it spoke volumes about her adventurous spirit. More so as those days the field of aeronautics was considered to be a men-dominated field. And, I distinctly remember the people in the faculty, involved in the process of the admission, counseling her that she had other options. You can opt for this particular field or that, they would advise. But she stuck to aeronautics.

"Her husband is an aviator himself, a pilot who has been a flying inspector. And when they met [in the US], I think this was the common bond that formed between the two --- their interest in aviation, planes and flying. He is an American citizen of British-French origin.

"She was younger to me so naturally I used to bully her. I took her for rides. Plenty of those memories are still fresh. We were the closest [among the three sisters and one brother] and we would have the maximum numbers of fights.

"I've not spent enough time with her after we grew up because she was mostly abroad and I was in Karnal. During our school days we were together. She was two years junior to me and we were in the same school.

"She did her aeronautical engineering in Chandigarh, her masters in engineering and PhD in the United States. She joined the space program in 1994.

"I last met her in January 1999. That was exactly after a year after her first launch. I was also present there at the time of her first launch.

"She has come here many years ago. More than ten years, I think. May be more… We used to keep in touch over the telephone and email. She would call up and talk for hours.

"I believe there was a phone call from the prime minister's office last evening. May be a couple of them. But then, I was not in a mental state to attend. The last that I know, that's also from the television, that they are in the process of collecting the debris for further investigation.

"My family must have received formal information from them [about the accident]. Actually, it is very procedural when a flight goes. They are all prepared for such an eventuality or accident. There is a set of information you have to furnish, like who has to be contacted immediately in case of such an eventuality. So, in Houston it was the name of my wife [Anju Chawla] who was supposed to be contacted in case of an emergency.

"Our parents were all there two days prior to the launch. I am the only relative in India at the moment. My wife, the children and our other two sisters are also in Houston at Kalpana's residence.

"I am will be joining them soon. I shall be leaving either tonight or tomorrow night."

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Shahid K Abbas in New Delhi