Washington, Feb. 2: Kalpana Chawla died without fulfilling one desire. She wanted to take the entire six-member crew of her maiden space flight in 1997 to India.
Shortly after her return to earth on that flight, Chawla contacted the Indian embassy in Washington and conveyed her wish to have the full crew travel to India.
Earlier, during the flight, she had spoken from space to then Prime Minister I.K. Gujral. “Your journey has expanded the frontiers of science and technology and also at the same time you have built another new... and strong bridge between India and America,” Gujral told her during the conversation.
“Sir, I am very glad that I am, if you say so, I am able to do that,” Chawla replied, laughing, as she often did during conversations.
The embassy got down to work on her request and arrangements were being made, but no one is able to really put a finger on why the visit did not work out. India subsequently went through a change of government and attendant political uncertainty: the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) deals with space and the changes may have contributed to the delay.
Then the six crew members were assigned various tasks by Nasa and were no longer together the way they were before and soon after the flight.
Eventually, Chawla was selected for her next — fatal, as it turned out — flight and the training schedules and other demands meant she could no longer travel abroad.
Just as India was close to her heart till the very end, the Americans always acknowledged the way India felt about Chawla. Their gestures conveyed the appreciation that Chawla was an Indian American. To watch her lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on her maiden flight, Nasa invited two space scientists from India and Indian diplomats from Washington.
T.P. Sreenivasan, now India’s ambassador in Vienna, yesterday recalled his conversation with Chawla minutes before lift-off.
“She was already in isolation from the rest of the world when we reached and Nasa arranged for me to watch her board the capsule and talk to her on the phone after she was inside the capsule, ready for the launch.”
Chawla told Sreenivasan that the solid science education she had received in school in India had got her interested in space.
Chawla was sensitive to the fact that she had given up her Indian nationality. Without that she would not have got to where she did in the US space programme with its requirements of security clearances and so on.
But she was glad the three Indians were representing her country of birth at the launch. “I said India remained proud of her children even after (they) migrated abroad,” Sreenivasan recalled.
Another American gesture was during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Washington in September 2000.
Then Vice-President Al Gore made sure Vajpayee met Chawla during the visit. At a lunch hosted by the Vice-President for Vajpayee, he invited Chawla to sit at the head table along with the Prime Minister.
In her last interview, Chawla spoke of how J.R.D Tata’s pioneering role as an aviator had inspired her at a young age. She spoke of the plane Tata used to fly mail in the sub-continent.
“The airplane that he flew for the mail flights now hangs in one of the aerodromes out there that I had had a chance to see. Seeing this airplane and just knowing what this person had done during those years was very intriguing. Definitely captivated my imagination.”
For the University of Colorado, which awarded her a Ph.D. in 1988, Chawla was the second US astronaut to die in an accident.
A statement issued by the university said: “The entire University of Colorado (CU) community mourns the loss of Kalpana Chawla, the CU astronaut who perished in the crash of the Columbia Space Shuttle over Texas.… Since this is the University of Colorado’s second astronaut to perish on a mission — Ellison Onizuka died in the Challenger explosion in January, 1986 — we are even further saddened.
“However, the University of Colorado remains enormously proud of our tradition of graduating astronauts to serve our country in the US space programme.”