Bud Kennedy

2003: ‘Be more ladylike,’ they said. But she went to space on the Columbia

Mission specialist Kalpana Chawla is shown during a training session at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. in this Dec. 17, 2002 file photo. Chawla is one of the seven astronauts killed when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart in flames 200,000 feet over Texas on Saturday just minutes before they were to land in Florida.
Mission specialist Kalpana Chawla is shown during a training session at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. in this Dec. 17, 2002 file photo. Chawla is one of the seven astronauts killed when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart in flames 200,000 feet over Texas on Saturday just minutes before they were to land in Florida. AP

A world away, she is a national hero, saluted in tearful newspaper tributes as “India's Space Girl.”

In Arlington, “K.C.” Chawla is remembered as a courageous explorer and a determined young graduate student who bucked the traditional role of South Asian women and left her homeland for the promise of America and education.

Lost somewhere in the sky over Texas on Saturday was a 5-foot white silk banner that astronaut Kalpana Chawla carried on the doomed Columbia. It showed a tiny schoolgirl bowing to a teacher with hand outstretched, a way for Chawla to honor all schoolteachers.

The shreds must have fluttered to Earth somewhere near the first American stop on her heaven-bound quest: the University of Texas at Arlington.

“Graduate students from India sometimes find that adjusting to Texas is a challenge,” said Don Wilson, chairman of the UT-Arlington mechanical and aerospace engineering department. He was one of Chawla's graduate professors from 1982 to 1984.

“K.C. was very focused. She was absolutely going to succeed. … When she decided to become an astronaut, then she was going to become an astronaut.”

First, she decided not to become a housewife. That was a woman's traditional destiny in the village of Karnal, where, according to news reports, she grew up in a well-to-do family — but in a town where 60 percent of women are illiterate.

Her mother wanted a boy.

When Chawla grew up smart and curious, wearing straight hair and jeans and learning karate, her father told her to become a teacher.

When she applied to engineering school in India instead, “all hell broke loose,” her brother has been quoted as saying.

Even the engineering professors told her not to study aerospace, Chawla has said. They told her that electrical engineering was “more ladylike.”

She was the only woman in the entire aerospace department at Punjab Engineering College.

She went on to become India's first woman in space — and now that nation's version of Christa McAuliffe, the American schoolteacher killed aboard the Challenger.

On the Web sites of Indian newspapers, readers are calling her India's “bird” who “touched the stars.”

“She lives in the heart of each and every scientist and engineer of India,” one reader wrote. Another described her as “darling and adorable. … Through [her] eyes, India looked at the universe.”

It's amazing to think how revered Chawla is halfway around the world.

And how another Chawla might be walking among us today in Arlington.

Just as we take spaceflight for granted, we also take UT-Arlington's 2,800-plus international students for granted. We see brilliant young men and women like Chawla all the time in the bookshops and the restaurants of what has truly become Dallas-Fort Worth’s international city.

“There is tremendous talent here, and sometimes we don't realize it at the time,” said Don Seath, the director of UT-Arlington's aerospace engineering program and also one of Chawla's former teachers.

“Haji” Haji-Sheikh, another of Chawla's former professors, named former students who are running companies in Hong Kong or teaching at universities in Singapore.

“They come to UTA with fresh ideas, and they turn out to be quite innovative,” Seath said. “Then they go all over the world.”

Or into space.

In an e-mail from the Columbia, Chawla told the students of her hometown school: “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get onto it and the perseverance to follow it.

“Wishing you a great journey.”

For Chawla — as it has for thousands of young students — the path to success led through Arlington.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.

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