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JRD's flight had inspired Kalpana

By Suman Guha Mozumder in New York
February 02, 2003 01:58 IST
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Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian American woman astronaut, began her maiden space odyssey in November 1997 when she went aboard STS-87 as mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator.

During her 18-day mission between November 19 and December 5, Chawla, then 35, travelled 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of the earth and logged 376 hours and 34 minutes in space.

In January 1998, she was assigned as crew representative for shuttle and station flight crew equipment.

Chawla, who was criticized in the media as a "rookie astronaut" after the return of the STS-87 mission, was subsequently selected for the STS-107 mission and began her second space odyssey on January 16 this year when the space shuttle Columbia, carrying her and six other astronauts, blasted into orbit on a 16-day scientific research mission.

Chawla was designated flight engineer and mission specialist 2 on STS-107, which mission was led by commander Rick Husband, a colonel in the US Air Force. Other members of the team were pilot William McCool and mission specialists David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut on a rare expedition.

Before the blastoff from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, Chawla told reporters that she was inspired by J R D Tata, who flew the first mail flights in India, to take up aeronautics as a career.

Chawla, an aerospace engineer and an FAA-certified flight instructor, was responsible along with Col Husband for manoeuvring the Columbia as part of several experiments in the shuttle's payload bay, according to NASA.

Besides her primary responsibilities, she worked during the current mission with experiments on astroculture, a biotechnology demonstration system, and advanced protein crystal facility, among others, according to NASA.

Throughout the mission, the STS-107 crew split into two shifts to be able to conduct 24-hour operations.

The shuttle left earth carrying more than 80 scientific experiments, half of which were commercial and sponsored by businesses that hoped to make the next big profit-making discovery.

Chawla, who was born in Karnal, India, held a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College, India, and a Master of Science in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas, Arlington, and a doctorate in the same subject from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Chawla, who enjoyed flying, hiking, back-packing and reading, was first selected by NASA in December 1994 and reported to the Johnson Space Centre in March 1995 as an astronaut candidate in the 15th group of astronauts.

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Suman Guha Mozumder in New York