Those shuttle deaths - it's personal


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Category: Profiles Date: 09 Feb 03

Before that fateful morning on February 1, 2003 when the space shuttle Colombia disintegrated 203,000 feet above earth into a white flame in the sky above Texas, shattering with such intensity that debris was scattered in thousands of pieces across six states in the US, I had never heard of Kalpana Chawla.


Chawla, the first Indian woman to enter space, died along with six other shuttle astronauts after the Colombia which had spent 16 days in orbit and was just 15 minutes away from a planned touchdown at the Kennedy Space Centre, lost contact with the Mission Control in Houston, Texas, and the shuttle exploded.


A victorious homecoming turned into mourning. Such an ending, beamed worldwide by satellite, ironically made possible by astronauts it is true, holds a morbid fascination.


The live reports of skulls, torsos, identification of the DNA, charred bodies, the damaged heat-resistant outer tiles, the gruesome manner of their deaths is unmistakably sensational.


Payload commander Michael Anderson was one of only a few black-American astronauts held up as a hero to a people who have risen up from a history of persecution.


Israeli Air Force colonel and fighter pilot Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. It was also the first space flight for crew members, pilot William McCool, Dr David Brown and Laurel Clarke, a former US Navy flight surgeon who was excited about “the huge number of difference science experiments in different fields, especially medical experiments that will benefit patients on earth”.


It was a lifelong dream come true for Mission commander Rick Husband, a US Air Force colonel from Texas. The ripple of grief had spread from a small town in India to its billions of people, throughout Israel and America to Africa. People in villages of India were chanting prayers at the same time as the people in Jerusalem while services were held across America.


This was not just an American tragedy, not only a blow to NASA, a calamity not restricted to the spouses and children of the astronauts who lost the people they loved. This was about us all.



When Chawla was once asked what it felt like to be the first Indian woman in space, she dismissed the question of nationality altogether, replying that among the stars, the enormity of being a human being witnessing such wonders wiped out the small enclosures of identity by which most of us live.

Still, whether or not she liked it, Chawla, like the other astronauts, had held out their flame firstly to those who could identify with them, and then collectively to us all.


I got e-mails from people I know in England, Canada, Trinidad, sending me their condolences over this Indian-born American woman who died on a space mission. I couldn’t understand it.


What had that to do with me or any Indian woman? For that matter, what had she got to do with the hundreds of thousands of illiterate, poor, oppressed and hungry women of India? Or what, for that matter, did her death have to do with any woman of any nationality born in difficult circumstances?


Chawla was saying to all women – educated, working, impoverished or reviled, home and abroad living in male dominated societies that even the stars were not the limit.


Chawla was born in Karnal, a small town in North India in the early 60s to uneducated parents who arrived penniless from Pakistan to Punjab in the 1942 partition of the subcontinent, in a time when the birth of a girl was met with disappointment.


She was told “no” many times because she was a girl, but she was determined.

“I’m going to tell these guys I’m not just another girl.”


Growing up in a tiny, planned city of 30,000 people in the state of Haryana – carved from Punjab in 1966 which practised sex selection in which female fetuses were aborted, where girls wear their hair in plaits, and married when told – she left hers loose and flowing, stood on the verandah and looked at the stars.


She shocked everyone by becoming the only woman to enrol at the Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh to study aeronautical engineering, defied her father, went to America, earned a masters at the University of Texas, a doctorate at the University of Colorado and shocked again by marrying an American – Jean-Pierre Harrison – flouting the convention of an arranged marriage.


She was selected by NASA in 1994 as an astronaut – one of the final 19 from 4,000 applicants, and on November 19, realised her dream becoming the first Indian woman in space, as mission specialist on the crew of the fourth US Micro gravity Payload flight – mission STS87.


Still, Chawla was described as a modest, down-to-earth woman who didn’t care if she wore the same clothes three days in a row, to a drawn out Indian wedding, still loved Indian classical music and would speak Hindi haltingly when pressed. The reason Chawla touched the world according to those who knew her best was not because she was extraordinary, but because she was determined.

Chawla once said: “Just looking at Earth, looking at stars during the night, past Earth, just looking at our planet roll by... and the awe that it inspires, so many good thoughts come to mind when you see all that. Whatever you believe in, do — just follow your dreams. Don’t worry about whether people encourage you.”


Ultimately, that’s the flame Chawla and her colleagues of different nationalities and different faiths have held to us individually, nationally and collectively: the courage to conquer new frontiers against impossible odds, a belief perhaps that we, too, can see ourselves from the wide expanse of the stars, as a single unit of humanity, rather than boxed in enclosures of nations and religions.


That’s why I now know of Kalpana, and her colleagues. They all touched us, in different ways, and that’s why its personal.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur