Chandigarh, Feb. 1: Kalpana Chawla lived her dream and died living it. As images of Columbia breaking up in the skies over Texas flashed on television, former teachers at the Punjab Engineering College recalled her “dream to reach the stars”.
“She died the way she perhaps wanted to — on a space shuttle,” said V.S. Malhotra, a teacher she had stayed in touch with. “I have many letters from her, this is the last one she sent me before the trip which engulfed her,” he said. “She would have achieved much more.”
Columbia was the 1961-born Chawla’s second flight since she joined Nasa in 1988. Her tryst with the stars began on November 19, 1997. On that mission, she travelled 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of the earth and logged 376 hours and 34 minutes in space.
Karnal, her hometown, 125 km from Delhi, celebrated when she lifted off the first time. “I wanted a boy as my last child, but instead delivered Kalpana. I am very proud of her,” her mother Sanyogita had declared then. Kalpana’s father Banarsi Lal runs a business in Sonepat.
Today, people braved the cold to ring temple bells and pray for a miracle. A student at Tagore School, where Chawla studied, said people had gathered across Karnal to pray for her.
“All who venture out to space do so with a spirit of adventure and exploration,” Isro chairman K. Kasturirangan said. “They are great women and men. When something like this happens to them, it is terrible.”
Chawla’s brother Sanjay said he learnt of the disaster in a mobile text message from his wife, who was with family members in the US. His mother and two sisters had left Delhi on January 13 to be with Kalpana for the launch. Sanjay is leaving tomorrow.
“I knew within my heart that something big had gone wrong,” he said. “When you are in such a job, then the family has to be ready for such news.”
However, he had not given up hope: “Miracles do happen, but it is hoping against a lot of odds.”