The edge of time, the persistence of imagination

Official NASA portrait of Kalpana Chawla

I am not the biggest fan of science. Although it was my favorite subject throughout much of my childhood, a love-hate relationship soon developed during my high school years. I even jokingly labeled myself as “anti-STEM,” much to the dismay of my mother and older sister who are ardent enthusiasts of the field. Although I still believe in the significance of developments under this scholarly discipline, my passion has manifested itself within other fields. One major interest of mine is culture and the forces that shape it, particularly as it relates to the representation of minorities.

Being an Asian-American and specifically Indian-American, it has been difficult growing up without seeing faces like mine in mass media. Even now at the age of eighteen years old, recurring doubts of self-worth have pushed me to question whether stories like mine matter.

One spring day, my mind kept wandering to this issue as I quarantined myself in my freshman dorm to finish a pile of assignments that I allowed myself to accumulate. Frustrated, I opened a web browser on my laptop and typed into the search engine: “notable Indian women in history” (or something of the like). Browsing through a slideshow, I finally arrived at a slide for a woman named Kalpana Chawla.

Kalpana Chawla -  the kind of name that you are quite sure you never heard of before, although every fiber of your being tells you otherwise. There was simply one paragraph to summarize the life and experiences of Kalpana and yet, a rather unfamiliar emotion washed over me, coming at me with the power of a thousand ocean waves. My legs wobbled as they took me from my desk to my bed, like a castaway who finally found the shore and was able to bask in the warmth of the sun. I laid on my bed for a good fifteen minutes, dumbfounded as I reflected on this woman who is beyond words to describe.

I wish this was an exaggerated picture of what happened. Afterall, how impressionable can I be if I am left speechless by a woman who I read a mere paragraph about? There was clearly something different about this notable individual that had struck an inexplicable personal chord with me. Finding the answer to this unasked question became my sole motivation to get up from my bed and trek on back to my desk. I opened numerous tabs on my web browser to find out more about this extraordinary woman.

Kalpana Chawla is known for being the first female of Indian descent to travel into space. Having held a lifelong fascination with the celestial world, she moved to the United States in 1982 to pursue a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. Six years later, she would obtain a PhD degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder. In 1991, Kalpana became a naturalized U.S. citizen, making her eligible to apply for the NASA Astronaut Corps. Officially becoming a member in 1995, Kalpana would embark on her first space mission in 1997 as a crew member of STS-87. This history-making mission was not enough for her as she had an insatiable thirst for adventure. Fully enamored with the cosmos, Kalpana went on to participate in a second space mission - the ill-fated STS 107. Upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere, the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated, killing all seven crew members.

I do not seek to give a report on the times and trials of Kalpana Chawla. If you wish for a fact-laden “About Me” page akin to a bio on a matchmaking website, the previous paragraph should suffice. What I intend to do is paint a more human portrait of a woman who was like no other. To this day, Kalpana is praised all over the world for her accomplishments. Although rightly so, I believe in shedding light on the person beneath those glorious honors. And who better than her husband of twenty years to provide this inner perspective?

From Jean-Pierre Harrison’s book The Edge of Time: The Authoritative Biography of Kalpana Chawla, I sought to discover a different side of Kalpana in hopes of finding the thread that mysteriously connected me to her, one that extended beyond a shared cultural and gender identity. However, as I flipped the pages of a book that I could not put down for three days straight, I realized it was more than a single thread that brought us together. In fact, it is quite possible that there are now enough threads that can be sewn together to form a nice linen shirt.

I do not wish for this connection to be a simple two-way street between Kalpana and I. I would like to see offshoots as I relay what I have learned to a generation that may be unfamiliar with Kalpana’s story. This does not stem from her personal experiences alone, but also from her beliefs, her outlook on the world, and yes, even her idiosyncrasies. From her dislike of John Wayne for criticizing Kirk Douglas on playing a “weak queer” to her hobby of reading biographies of artists and producing quite a good portrait of T.S. Elliot, there is so much more to this woman than meets the eye.

Perhaps the best way to introduce this remarkable woman is by examining what every basic introduction includes — a name. The literal translation of Kalpana is “imagination,” which is not surprising considering the dreams she dared to dream. Do not think, however, that Kalpana’s parents are excellent at predicting their daughter’s future. In actuality, Kalpana named herself - at the mere age of three years old! This kind of boldness will come from the same young girl who would insist to have her birth date changed from March 17, 1962 to July 1, 1961 so that she may enroll at school early. From a young age, Kalpana displayed an eager willingness to learn and welcome a world of knowledge to her feet.

Kalpana’s familial background was also one that I could relate to very closely. In fact, the details itself were so accurate to my own life that I felt I was reading a page torn out of my own non-existent biography. Kalpana’s parents were offered a limited education, with her father often opting to go swimming with friends instead of attending school. Although he was physically absent at times during Kalpana’s childhood due to his work obligations, he made possible whatever opportunities his family were able to enjoy. Kalpana’s mother, on the other hand, is religious and intelligent in her own right. Recognizing her children’s potential, she was always encouraging in regards to their aspirations. This kind of support enabled Kalpana’s older sister, Pikki, to pursue degrees in English, a nontraditional academic path for an Indian. Pikki was also the sibling Kalpana was closest to. Kalpana was fiercely loyal to her and held an admiration for her throughout much of her life.

Despite the tight bond Kalpana formed with her sister, Kalpana was perhaps most like Sanjay (aka Romi), her sibling to whom she was closest in age. They had similar career desires as Romi wished to be a pilot. Much of their childhood was spent riding their bicycles together to the local airport in Karnal (Kalpana’s hometown in Haryana, India) where they would be fully captivated by the graceful dances of the small planes in the air. Daydreaming would not be enough for Kalpana as she would lie on the roof at night on countless occasions and stargaze, contemplating all that exists beyond the physical realm that we are familiar with.

Still, Kalpana did not limit her worldview to simply that of what was beyond. In fact, for a long time, she wanted to be a newsreader for All India Radio. Perhaps she eventually chose a different path because she could not keep a straight face, as revealed through her renditions for her husband many years later. However, it was evident early on that she possessed the seed of creativity whenever she would avidly tell made-up stories using small plastic animals that Romi obtained from a friend. This sense of inventiveness eventually led her down the engineering path, but Kalpana reveled in other aspects of science as well. She particularly held a deep appreciation for nature and the beauty that radiates from it. This started from simply maintaining gardens around the house, but would eventually blossom into a life-long rush for adventure. This goes beyond being a keen hiker and skiing lover once she moved to the United States. In fact, Jean-Pierre has a photograph from the couple’s Grand Canyon trip of Kalpana reclining near the edge of a cliff beyond the guard rail.

Jean-Pierre recalled Kalpana being annoyed when he asked her to take caution in the aforementioned stunt, but fearlessness was a trait that she was innately born with. Kalpana took karate lessons growing up (and cheekily admitted to having a crush on her Persian instructor) and when told she had to submit to hazing in college, she challenged an older student, “What are you going to do, hit me?” But perhaps the act that summoned the most courage was standing up to administrators at Punjab Engineering College. After having been informed that girls do not study aeronautical engineering, Kalpana became the first girl to do so in 1978.

Indeed, Kalpana never allowed gender stereotypes to define her path to success. In fact, before enrolling at Punjab Engineering College, her father sought to marry her off in her late teens as was the custom in a Punjabi household. Although Kalpana dutifully followed other traditions like showing respect to her grandfather despite not agreeing with his religious beliefs, she rebelled in other ways. She dressed in practical tomboyish clothes and demonstrated her assertiveness by always voicing her wish to be team captain, in spite of not having a natural aptitude for sports sans badminton. However, that did not stop her from being a closet Denver Broncos fan when she was a resident of Colorado, even though that stemmed from local support and regional pride more than an actual interest in the sport.

As expected, when Kalpana embarked upon her first space mission, she was also hailed as India’s patriot. It is not difficult to see why as aside from her obvious genetic link to the country, she also held a deep reverence for its culture. Not only was Kalpana quite content eating samosas (“sams” in her book) and drinking chai all day on her trips back to India, but she was also always fond of India’s artistic nature. Kalpana took Bharatanatyam (a form of Indian classical dance) lessons as a child and resumed performing much later in adulthood. In fact, one of the personal items she brought aboard the Columbia space shuttle on the STS-107 mission was a token of the U.S.-based Indian dance company that she belonged to. Additionally, Kalpana had an ear for Indian music. On space missions, crew members take turns to have their selection of wakeup music played. For the STS-87 mission, Kalpana chose a Ravi Shankar sitar piece. The ultimately last piece of music dedicated specifically to her on the fatal STS-107 mission was Abida Parveen’s Yaar ko Hamne ja Baja Dekha. A song about being surrounded by one’s loved ones, it was quite the fitting piece as Kalpana left the world just when she was trying to reenter it.

Kalpana held her eyes open when exploring cultures other than her own, too. In the vein of music, she particularly admired American guitarist Steve Morse for his talent and attitude. The first rock concert she ever attended was to see Morse’s band Deep Purple perform. Post the Columbia disaster, Morse would record an instrumental to serve as a prayer for the lost crew members. Years before this, however, Kalpana would express her enjoyment of a gypsy dance concert by tracking down one of the dancers to give her an STS-87 mission patch. Yet, perhaps the most memorable incident occurred on a visit to Ukraine with her fellow STS-87 crew members. In true Kalpana fashion, instead of following the Ukranian tradition of having all the men stand and offer the third toast to the women, Kalpana had all the women stand and offer a toast to the men. Although this action of hers was applauded, not all attempts at immersing herself in another culture had been successful. A trip to Russia that had coincided with the STS-87 Commander Kevin Kregel’s birthday saw Kalpana’s futile attempt to obtain birthday candles for a cake. When the shop clerk could not understand her Russian, she sang the “Happy Birthday” song and puffed as if to blow candles. This humorous display was met with a stoic expression from the clerk and alas, Kregel had to go a birthday without candles.

Perhaps Kalpana’s open and welcoming nature is what led her to consider herself a “citizen of the world.” Kalpana, like many immigrants and first-generation Americans, felt that she belonged to neither India nor America, despite both countries’ claims to her accomplishments. Jean-Pierre asserts that she achieved all that she did for herself, not for any outside force. Still, she recognized what her position meant in the history books and even made annual donations for the International Space School Foundation to be able to recruit students from India and introduce them to the space industry.

Kalpana hoped to add more to her life. After obtaining a sense of self-fulfillment and experiencing a fast-paced life, she revealed to Jean-Pierre that she would like to resort to a simpler lifestyle and teach at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University one day. She even played with the idea of living in Bhutan because she greatly admired the country’s efforts to preserve its environment and culture.

Perhaps it is this dual nature of Kalpana — of being both selfless and self-motivated — that instantly drew me to her. It could also be the quiet strength that she carried throughout much of her life. Or maybe it was her willingness to embrace the new and unknown, whether it be here on this earth or beyond. But above all, I believe I was most struck by her sincerity in all that she did. Genuity is a trait seldom easy to find. Yet, Kalpana exuded this not only in Jean-Pierre’s account of her, but also in photographs. Although it is reasonable to assume that the photo on Jean Pierre’s book cover was thoughtfully and purposely selected, I could not help but let my eyes wander to the portrait of Kalpana on the spine of the book. It is so small that it could be easily missed, but the earnestness in her eyes is something that cannot be avoided. For the first time in my life, I truly understood the meaning of the phrase, “The eyes are the window to the soul.”

Although Kalpana tragically did not live long enough to pursue the extension of her dreams, she will always be, as Jean-Pierre wrote, “Forever young, at the pinnacle of achievement, beyond space, at the edge of time.” However, I propose an addendum to this ending quote: “the persistence of imagination.” Kalpana’s journey was made possible by her ability to aspire to the unthinkable. Jean-Pierre believes that her greatest contribution to her native India was putting the nation on the map by showing what Indians can do and letting them hold a place among the best. I believe, however, that Kalpana’s greatest contribution to humankind was proving that every goal is attainable when there is an inextinguishable inner fire.

"The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on it, and the perseverance to follow it. Wishing you a great journey." - Kalpana Chawla