As Kalpana Chawla documentary releases, father Banarasi Lal Chawla recollects her perseverance, passion for education
Before becoming the first woman of Indian origin to go to space, Kalpana Chawla was the sole woman in her Bachelor's in Aeronautical Engineering class at the Punjab Engineering College. Her father Banarasi Lal Chawla spoke with Firstpost in the run-up to the 8 March, International Women's Day premiere of a documentary based on Kalpana's life.
Before becoming the first woman of Indian origin to go to space, Kalpana Chawla was the sole woman in her Bachelor's in Aeronautical Engineering class at the Punjab Engineering College.
Her father Banarasi Lal Chawla spoke with Firstpost in the run-up to the 8 March, International Women's Day premiere of a documentary based on Kalpana's life.
Banarasi Lal Chawla’s last conversation with his daughter Kalpana Chawla left him speechless.
She was on board the space flight STS-107 Columbia for a 16-day mission. It would have a tragic ending when on 1 February 2003, 16 minutes prior to scheduled landing, the flight and her crew perished.
Earlier on that trip, Kalpana had spoken with her parents through video conference; the Chawlas went through a lot of travel and hassle before finally making it to NASA for the call.
‘Jaise hum rishtadar ke liye gaadi bhejte hai, tu hamare liye jahaz nahi bhej sakti thi? (Like we send a car for relatives, you couldn’t send a plane for us?)’ he asked.
‘Papa ek cheez dikhau? (Papa, shall I show you something?)’ she responded, after spending, as he recalls, almost 15 seconds laughing at his comment.
‘Ha jee dikhao (Yes, show).'
She pulled out a photograph of her parents from her pocket and showed it to him. “I didn’t say anything else to her. I fell quiet,” Mr Chawla recalled, in an interview with Firstpost in the run-up to the 8 March, International Women's Day premiere of a documentary based on Kalpana's life.
“Perseverance” is what Kalpana attributed her success to in a 2003 interview, before heading off on this fateful mission. “There have been other factors too, like reading and exploring, that have helped widen [my] perspectives and enriched the journey,” she added, about the importance of education.
Before becoming the first woman of Indian origin to go to space, she was the sole woman in her Bachelor's in Aeronautical Engineering class at the Punjab Engineering College. She also had to manage accommodation, since the college did not have a girls’ hostel at the time, but Kalpana persevered, focused on earning her degree.
At the college was a female friend studying another subject, who suddenly stopped attending classes after about two years. When Kalpana learnt of this, she went to her friend’s house to find out what had happened: Her friend’s father had lost his job and could no longer afford the fee. Kalpana then proceeded to tell the family about various government loans and grants they could apply for, managing all the paperwork for them, and making sure her friend was back in college the next day. Later, even that friend settled in America. “Kalpana wanted [to ensure] that no one was uneducated, that girls especially should be educated, and be encouraged to pursue the sciences,” Mr Chawla says, about his daughter’s vision.
“Whenever she had the chance to, she kept learning and teaching science. It has always been her wish that children have full freedom to study and that their parents support them as much as possible,” he adds.
Her belief in the power of education is evident in the mini scholarships she would offer, once she had a job and had settled into life in America. For seven years, annually, she contacted her school in Karnal (the Tagore Baal Niketan School) and invited two of their science toppers to the US. For 15 days they would stay with her. She would feed them and look after them, and take them to NASA with her, showing them around and teaching them about it. Kalpana firmly believed that “the knowledge that’s created through studying all this helps create a beautiful world,” says Mr Chawla.
Coupled with this quality of persevering was an unquenchable curiosity, nurtured by her father since Kalpana was a child.
Kalpana was about three or four years old when she first saw an aeroplane. A few kilometres away from her childhood home in Karnal was a flying club, and the trainees there would fly over surrounding towns. After excitedly telling her father about her discovery that day, she asked if he could arrange for her to see the plane. He promised to try his best and a few days later, was able to take Kalpana and her elder brother there.
As soon as she saw the plane parked in the garage she ran to it, and starting bombarding the pilot with questions about how it worked and how one could fly it. The pilot, seeing her enthusiasm, invited the trio into his plane and flew them around the area. “Once she got off the plane, her legs wouldn’t stay still, she was dancing around, was very excited,” recalls her father fondly.
Kalpana was also a confident decision-maker since she was a child. When her family took her to get enrolled in school at Karnal, the teacher asked for her name. Maltu, they said, referring to her pet name, not officially having named her yet. Jyotsna, Kalpana and Sunaina were the three short-listed options her elder sister offered. Excited, Kalpana chose her own name.
Growing up, as this clear-headedness developed, Kalpana was sure about the things she wanted, and single-mindedly pursued her dreams. After much furore and with only five days to spare, Mr Chawla arranged for her daughter’s passport, visa, and tickets, to study in the US.
Funding herself by working on the side, Kalpana earned her Master's in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas and later, her PhD from the University of Colorado. She then started work at the NASA Ames Research Center and in 1995, was invited to the NASA Johnson Space Centre as an astronaut candidate.
And then in 1997, from 19 November to 5 December, she embarked on her first space flight mission aboard the STS-87 Columbia. “One of the strangest things is that when I was about to sleep, I realised I was only aware of my thoughts. Because you are weightless you don't feel your legs or your body. In a sense then, you are just your intelligence. It's amazing you can't feel anything but your consciousness,” she says about her first completed mission in a 1998 interview.
Kalpana, curious, intelligent, and passionate, was also an inherently jovial person. “As a child she was very cheerful, loved to play and laugh,” says Mr Chawla. And as she grew up, she tried to erase all differences and discrimination around her. “For her, there was no ‘us’ and ‘them’. We are all one,” her father says. “The whole world should understand this. If we come together and work, it’ll be more successful and helpful to more people.”
The television premiere of the documentary ‘Kalpana’ will be on National Geographic and Hotstar at 9 pm on Sunday, 8 March, 2020.
Watch the trailer here:
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