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The astronaut next door

By Suleman Din in Houston
February 03, 2003 13:42 IST
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Living next door to an astronaut was no big deal for Marie Inkofer.

After all, she said, it was just Kalpana Chawla, a 'play-it-by-the-numbers' kind of person who lived quietly and was very private, but always friendly, never hesitating to chat.

There would be Chawla, Inkofer said, all suited up for her daily run, waving hello on the street, stopping to pay a courtesy, talking about her space training or her prized garden.

That was Chawla -- Inkofer's Southern drawl dragging it into 'chaow-laah' -- a pleasant neighbour, someone who blended into the community, never putting on airs, never trying to impress on people the prestige of her profession.

"When she moved in, the people who sold her the house told me later that she didn't even tell them she was an astronaut," Inkofer said.

"I remember going up to her and asking: 'K C, are you an astronaut?' And all she said was, 'Yeah...' That's it; she didn't elaborate."

Memories like those, so recent and vivid, make it hard for her to accept what happened on the morning of February 1, when Chawla, 41, and her six colleagues perished after the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated during re-entry over Texas.

Living in Clear Lake Forest, two miles away from the Johnson Space Centre, a neighbourhood populated by NASA employees, the 66-year-old homemaker said everyone had taken for granted that Chawla was going to come home safe.

The space trip just seemed like a routine thing, Inkofer said, like a business trip, or vacation with relatives. She had spoken to Chawla just before she left. Never once, Inkofer said, did she think of the worst.

"We've become so complacent; we expect everyone to be okay," she said. She woke up that morning and turned on the television just as NASA lost contact with the shuttle.

"I'm still numb by it all. It just doesn't seem right."

A trooper stands guard outside Chawla's redbrick home on Elderwood Drive, screening everyone who wants to enter. Only family members and close friends are allowed inside.

Inkofer had sent some rice for the family the day the tragedy occurred. She said she did not do what else to do.

"You want to give them their privacy," she said. "You just feel so strongly for them. I am just glad that all her family is here right now. It would be worse for them if they were in India."

There were vigils and pujas for the astronauts on February 2 in Houston area, but Inkofer said she hadn't thought of how to commemorate the quiet neighbour who relaxed by tending to her garden.

Still blooming in Chawla's yard are the azaleas that she loved and the two shrubs she planted all by herself.

"She was very proud that she planted those shrubs," Inkofer said, mentioning how Chawla insisted on using natural fertiliser on her lawn and had a special gardener come by only to do that.

The neighbourhood is known for its greenery, especially its long, swinging trees, and that attracted her.

But they had to make sure that they would be welcome, Inkofer said, recalling how Chawla's husband, Jean-Pierre Harrison, came over to talk to her husband in the garage.

"They were trying to suss out what kind of people we were," she said. "Harrison said, 'Well, my wife is from India...' My husband told him, 'Well, my son-in-law is from Bangladesh.'"

"That pretty much sealed the deal," she said.

Inkofer said Chawla and Harrison were good neighbours. Right before the mission, Chawla and her family went on a trip to Mexico and Inkofer collected her mail and newspapers while she was gone.

When Chawla returned, she gave Inkofer a little plaque as a token of appreciation. It was a small thing, she said. "That will be very special to me forever now."

Inkofer said that the people of India should be proud of Chawla. "She achieved her life's goal -- going into space," she said. "It is wonderful that one of India's talented people became such an asset to our nation."

She sat back and looked towards Chawla's home. Inkofer, who had met Chawla's sister, understood what the family was going -- she had lost a brother in a plane crash.

"I know the shock of it. You are so unprepared for it when it happens.

"Chawla's family was in her house, waiting for her to come in," she continued. "It was just a routine flight, I was going to send over a note, to invite her over when she got back. We were all waiting to welcome her home."

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Suleman Din in Houston