| A Nasa photo released on Tuesday shows Kalpana Chawla getting help with her launch and entry suit from the crew in the White Room, an environmentally-controlled chamber mated to space shuttle Columbia for entry into the shuttle, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, before the January 16 launch. (AFP)
Washington, Feb. 4: With Kalpana Chawla’s parents seated only four chairs away from him and First Lady Laura Bush, US President George W. Bush today spoke sombrely of how the Indian-American astronaut had left India and travelled thousands of miles to “see the nation of her birth, all of it” from outer space.
Speaking at an inter-faith memorial service for the fallen Columbia astronauts at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Bush recalled the words of Chawla’s school administrator in Karnal who said she always wanted to reach the stars. She did that and went beyond.
“Kalpana’s native country mourns her today as well as her adopted land,” the President said.
The one-hour memorial service was led by Rabbi Harold Robinson of the US Navy and was conducted for the better part in Hebrew with readings from the Torah.
Sources said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) invited a Hindu priest in Texas to attend today’s ceremony, but he did not lead the mourners in any formal prayer.
President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush sat in the front row with families of the fallen astronauts in what Nasa described as “a private ceremony for family members, friends and invited guests, along with Nasa employees”.
Hundreds of people who came to the Johnson Space Centre to grieve with families of the Columbia astronauts, including scores of Indian-Americans, had to be turned away. They placed flowers outside the Space Centre or quietly prayed for the victims of Saturday’s tragedy.
Access to the service even to the media was severely restricted. Television crews and still photographers were admitted, but only on a pool basis.
Bush and the First Lady were accompanied on the Air Force One flight from here to Houston by Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Also on the flight was former Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the planet and his wife Annie. “It is too bad we couldn’t have pushed this day back forever,” said Glenn.
India was officially represented at the memorial service by its consul-general in Houston, S.R. Tayal.
Before the inter-faith prayer at the Space Centre, Bush and the First Lady had an emotional meeting with family members of the seven space shuttle astronauts.
On Saturday, he had spoken to them on the phone, consoling each one with the words: “I wish I was there to hug and cry and comfort you right now.”
Yesterday, the White House singled out Chawla to underline America’s diversity. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Chawla was a “hero in India” and “an example and a role model to millions in both countries, particularly women”.
The memorial was the first occasion when Chawla’s family, whose members have been grieving in seclusion at her home, was exposed to the media and the public at large.
The family members attended a prayer at the Meenakshi temple in Houston yesterday, but B.L. Chawla, the Indian-American astronaut’s grief-stricken father did not speak a word to the 350-odd people who attended the prayer.
He silently went to the sanctum sanctorum and lit a candle for his daughter in the presence of Tayal and Thomas Reid, mayor of the Houston suburb of Pearland.
Nasa chief Sean O’Keefe said at the Space Centre ceremony today that on her fatal flight, Chawla had looked out at the Earth and seen the entire planet reflected from the retina of her eye. She persuaded all her crewmates to share the experience.
Captain Kent Rominger, chief of Nasa astronauts office, said: “KC to friends, she sought technical perfection and was admired for her extraordinary kindness.”