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Rediff.com  » News » 'Kalpana wanted to die in space'

'Kalpana wanted to die in space'

By Suleman Din in New York
February 02, 2003 11:42 IST
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Kalpana Chawla's family has gathered at her home in Houston, Texas, to mourn her death in the Columbia space shuttle explosion.

Her cousin and sole blood-relative in the United States, Girish Chawla, said the family is slowly accepting she is gone.

'I am shocked, stunned,' Girish told The Atlanta-Constitution Journal. 'She was a very determined person. She was totally dedicated to her profession.'

Girish's wife, Harvinder Gill, said her husband had left their home in Alpharetta, Georgia, to fly out to Houston only a few hours after the incident.

Gill said Kalpana's space flights always made Girish worry, because he thought they were dangerous, and told her so on many occasions.

"Girish mentioned he was always scared," she said. "He told Kalpana he was always scared at the rocket liftoff."

But Gill said Kalpana, 41, was not afraid of the risks an astronaut faced. "Sometimes, when the family would go on picnics in India, she would tell them that if she was going to die, she wanted to die in space," Gill said.

Kalpana Chawla was among the seven on board the Columbia, which disintegrated during re-entry over Texas February 1 morning, minutes before it was to land in Florida after a 16-day research mission.

She was the first Indian-American in space. 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.

An investigation is now under way as to what caused the explosion, but NASA officials said they first noticed a loss of readings from sensors measuring tire pressure, temperature and structural heat on the shuttle's left side during its descent. Controllers lost all contact with the shuttle minutes later.

Gill said they first learned of what happened when the phone rang early that morning. It was a relative, calling from India, telling her the Columbia had not landed.

"I thought it was a misunderstanding at first," Gill said, who then ran to turn on a television set, and broke down as she watched the images of streaking white debris against a blue sky.

"We weren't ready to deal with something like this," she said. "We always worried during the launches, but never thought something like this could happen during landings."

This is the first time a shuttle has been lost returning from orbit since the program began 113 missions ago in 1981. It comes only days after the 17th anniversary of the shuttle Challenger explosion.

Gill said she was worried after Girish left, because he did not call her for hours. He finally called, late in the evening, to tell her the family was trying to be patient.

"Girish was so close to Kalpana," Gill said, remembering their trips to visit her in Houston. "He was really excited to see her returning, he wanted to sit down and just talk to her about her trip," she said.

Gill remembered Kalpana as a woman dedicated to her goal of exploring space, even after she went up the first time, in 1997.

"In her house, there were just books everywhere," Gill said. "Whenever we would see her, she would leave video tapes for us to watch about NASA and her space training. She didn't have cable or watched the news.

"She was always talking about space and NASA, and would get very excited when someone asked her about it. We would tease her, that she was not like a person, just a brain."

Born in Karnal, Haryana, Kalpana received an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab University in 1982. After moving to the US, she earned a master's degree and a doctorate in the same field. She also became an American citizen, marrying Jean-Pierre Harrison, a flying instructor.

In 1994, NASA selected her for a rigorous one-year training programme to serve as a mission specialist on board shuttle missions. Her first mission was in 1997, a 15-day sojourn.

Girish and his family had traveled to Florida to see Kalpana's liftoff in January for the beginning of the trip, and the last time he spoke to his sister was the night before her flight, on the phone.

"She told him, 'Girish, don't take off all your days at once, take only half of them off, so that when I come back, we can spend some time together,'" Gill said.

"She was all about her profession, single-minded," she continued. "Kalpana had no kids, because she was so much in love with space travel."

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Suleman Din in New York