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Rediff.com  » News » 'She said she'd say hello to us from space'

'She said she'd say hello to us from space'

By Suleman Din in New York
February 02, 2003 03:11 IST
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Those who knew Kalpana Chawla and those who never met her mourned her death equally.

"I'll always remember her with fondness, as an example that anyone with motivation can overcome barriers and achieve their dreams," said Dr Sudhir Chawla (no relation), a professor of marketing at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, who befriended Kalpana at the University of Texas, Arlington.

'The entire University of Colorado community mourns the loss of Kalpana Chawla, who perished this morning in the crash of the Columbia Space Shuttle over Texas,' read a statement released by the school.

"A sad moment indeed for India and the United States, the two countries that made Kalpana Chawla possible," said T P Sreenivasan, who at the time of her first space sojourn was the deputy chief of mission to the United States.

"It's just a tragedy," said Dharmini Parmal, a homemaker in Houston, Texas, who watched the tragedy unfold later on television. "Our condolences are to the families, my heartfelt wishes are to their children."

Kalpana Chawla, 41, was among the seven on board the Columbia, which disintegrated during re-entry over Texas on Saturday morning.

Born in Karnal, Haryana, she received an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab University in 1982. After moving to the United States, she earned a master's degree and a doctorate in the same field. She also became a US citizen.

In 1994, NASA selected her for a rigorous one-year training programme to serve as a mission specialist on board shuttle missions.

Dr Chawla, 51, said Kalpana was always jovial, even when people poked fun at her dreams of becoming an astronaut.

"We would always joke, 'Come on, you know NASA doesn't take foreigners', and she would just say, 'Where there is a will, there is a way, and I will make it," Dr Chawla said.

"Kalpana said she would say hello to us from space," he continued.

Dr Chawla said he had not contacted Kalpana's family or friends yet. "I'm not sure I'd be able to say anything to them right now, honestly," he said.

Parmal said her phone starting ringing from friends and family, telling her to switch on the television and learn what was happening.

"I told my husband it reminded me of the Challenger explosion," she said, referring to the doomed shuttle flight that blew up moments after lift-off 17 years ago. "When that happened, I couldn't even believe it. When I heard about it on the radio, I thought it was a prank. Under any circumstances, I didn't think this would happen again."

Parmal said she didn't even know an Indian woman was on board the Columbia. "My thoughts immediately went to the children of the astronauts," she said. "I remember in 1986, how the cameras focused on the faces of that teacher's [Christa McAuliffe] children, how confused they were. I feel for all those children right now."

Parmal said she was north of the area where the debris of the shuttle had fallen, and too far away to have heard an explosion, as some did.

Sreenivasan said he watched the television with increasing horror. "My first thought was the hope that Kalpana Chawla was not on board that flight. [But] within minutes I stood still with a prayer on my lips for the only Indian American astronaut."

He said he was invited by NASA to Florida to see Kalpana's first flight into space in 1997, and spoke to her then by phone. "I wished her the best on behalf of the people and the Government of India and said how proud we were that she was selected to undertake this flight. She recalled her younger days in India and said she was glad that India sent me to Florida to witness the launch even though she was no more an Indian citizen.

"India was as proud of her as of many overseas Indians who soared high and brought glory to the nation."

Also on board were commander Rick Husband, 45, co-pilot William McCool, 41, and mission specialists David Brown, 46, Laurel Clark, 41, and Michael Anderson, 43. The Israeli astronaut was payload specialist Ilan Ramon, 48, his country's first citizen to make the journey into space.

Colorado University, where Kalpana completed her doctorate, issued a solemn statement remembering her, hoping that others would not abandon their dreams of going into space.

'Since this is the University of Colorado's second astronaut to perish on a mission -- Ellison Onizuka died in the Challenger explosion in January 1986 -- we are even further saddened.

'However, the University of Colorado remains enormously proud of our tradition of graduating astronauts to serve our country in the United States Space Program.'

Dr Chawla said Kalpana would have felt the same way. "People should not look at this as a tragedy," he said. "They should not forget about their dreams of going into space. They should see what she did as a motivation."

"She was a young, determined individual," Dr Chawla continued. "I'm sure she was happy, because she succeeded in doing what she wanted."

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Suleman Din in New York