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Kalpana wanted to go to space stations

By Shakti Bhatt
February 06, 2003 07:34 IST
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"The last time I met Kalpana [Chawla], she talked about her husband," said Dr Robert Culp, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who was her mentor for four years when she was pursuing her doctorate.

"She said how her husband had sacrificed his job in California when she was accepted by the NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] space programme."

Chawla's husband Jean-Pierre Harrison worked as a flying instructor near Sunnyvale, California, where they lived from 1988 to 1994. When she had to move to Houston, Texas, he had to leave his position at a Palo Alto flying school.

According to Dr Culp, Harrison was unable to find a steady job for several years thereafter. "As far as I know, he still does not have a job and that upset her sometimes."

When she joined the university in 1984, Chawla was originally enrolled in its mechanical engineering programme, Dr Chuen-yen Chow, her co-mentor, said. "Then her love for aeroplanes and flying made her transfer into the aerospace department."

After graduation, Chawla returned to the university several times to give talks to students about her experiences.

"She was a really good alumnus," Dr Culp, who taught orbital mechanics and astrodynamics to Chawla, said. "She especially liked talking to the women students and gave them inspirational talks on how to follow and focus on their dreams."

At the time of her first space mission in 1997, Chawla took two university flags with her. When she returned, she presented one flag each to the university president and to the dean of the college.

But last year, she told Dr Culp that she wanted to do something different. She wanted to take a banner of the aerospace engineering department of the university. But there was only one problem. The department had no banner. "Then I proposed that we design a special banner for her to take to space," he said.

Three copies of the banner were ordered -- one each for the two mentors and one for Chawla, which would travel with her to space. She was going to bring back hers.

While Chawla was in orbit, Dr Culp would often email her. "In my last email to her, I told her how proud we were to have her up there," he said.

Asked what he remembers about Chawla, Culp related an interesting incident. Since Chawla was small -- around 5 feet and 90 pounds -- NASA did not have a space suit that fit her. "NASA only has large and medium sizes. Both were too big for her," he said.

For that reason, Chawla could not go to space stations and could only go on missions where that was not part of the work. "She had told me once that making a small-size suit would cost NASA millions of dollars," he said.

"But at our last lunch together, she told me that she had succeeded in convincing NASA to make small EVA [extra vehicular activity] suits. Even though that would take a couple of years, she was very excited that she would finally be able to go to space stations."

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Shakti Bhatt