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
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
victorious homecoming turned into mourning. Such an ending, beamed
worldwide by satellite, ironically made possible by astronauts it is true,
holds a morbid fascination.
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.
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
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”.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
was told “no” many times because she was a girl, but she was
going to tell these guys I’m not just another girl.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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