Washington, Feb. 3: “From Karnal to Canaveral, Kalpana, you came a long way. You will be remembered deeply and dearly by all.”
This is the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where hundreds of signs, banners, teddy bears and flowers paying tributes to Kalpana Chawla and six other astronauts who perished with Columbia are all but obscuring the signboard of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).
Most of the signs are handwritten, the spontaneous outpouring of grief by individual Americans, whose lives have suddenly been touched by an Israeli fighter pilot, a girl who came across the oceans from India in pursuit of science and five of their own who dedicated their lives to explore space.
Indians in Houston had planned a big kite-flying festival on Sunday to mark sankranti and to celebrate Chawla’s return from her second space flight.
Instead, a few thousand of them gathered at the George Bush Park in Western Harris county under the flags of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America and the India Culture Centre to mourn the astronaut.
The most touching was a ceremony in Houston in memory of Chawla that was attended by her parents and family members. Hymns were sung and prayers were offered at the remembrance.
Chawla’s father declined to speak at the ceremony. Unlike families of several other victims of the shuttle tragedy, who have been appearing on television and addressing memorial services, the Chawla family has been keeping their grief to themselves and those close to them.
Because Texas is home to the Johnson Space Center and, therefore, to many astronauts, small groups of mourners who deeply feel the loss have been gathering even in small towns to pay tributes to seven of America’s latest icons.
At a tribute organised by the Indian Association of North Texas in Richardson, Kam Lulla, a Nasa scientist who worked with Chawla recalled that every year she brought two students from her school in Karnal to visit Nasa. “Kalpana Chawla quietly, silently but very strongly touched many lives,” he said. “She determined what she wanted to do, and she did it.”
But memorials, specially for Chawla, were not confined to Texas. In Maryland, Indian ambassador Lalit Mansingh was among those at a special prayer at the Siva-Vishnu temple.
In Sunnyvale, California, where Chawla lived for five years on a Nasa contract and her husband as a flying instructor, hundreds of people gathered at a temple for prayers.
In his telephone conversation with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee yesterday, President George W. Bush described Chawla as a “brave and courageous star” born in “your great country”.
A White House spokesman said Vajpayee “responded that she was the symbol of the kind of co-operation that India and America have recently developed in advanced areas of research and development”. Bush and first lady Laura Bush will fly to the Johnson Space Center on Tuesday to join the nation in a tribute to the astronauts at a memorial service and meet families of five men and two women killed in the shuttle disaster.