Remembering Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian American to go to space

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re highlighting people whose contributions have often been overlooked. Tonight, we explore the legacy of Kalpana Chawla, the first American of Indian descent to travel to space, who gave her life in the pursuit of research, science and exploration.

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  • John Yang:

    Finally, tonight, our Hidden History series, we explore the legacy of the first Indian American astronaut who gave her life the name of research, science and exploration.

  • Man:

    Dr. Kalpana Chawla, also a rookie Mission Specialist.

  • John Yang:

    In 1997, Kalpana Chawla realized her lifelong dream of traveling to space. She was the first American of Indian descent to accomplish that feat. Once it all seemed unimaginable.

  • Kaplana Chawla, First Indian-American Astronaut:

    For me, it was very far-fetched to think I get to fly on the space shuttle because I lived in India in a very small town. And forget about space. I didn`t even know if my folks were going to let me go to the engineering college.

  • John Yang:

    She did get an aerospace engineering degree from Punjab engineering college in India, and a PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder. In 1994, she was one of the 20 applicants accepted in NASA`s astronaut program out of a pool of nearly 4,000.

    She was assigned to the shuttle Columbia as a mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator. On her first mission, Chawla used the arm to deploy a research satellite. It was intended to study the sun but malfunctioned.

    On her second mission, she oversaw research on the impact of low gravity, ranging from crystal growth to cancer. But on the return to Earth on February 1, 2003, just minutes before it was to land in Florida, the Columbia disintegrated, killing the entire crew.

    NASA suspended space flights for two years while it investigated the disaster which was blamed on damage the shuttle suffered at liftoff.

    In India, there were shock and horror. Many said tearful prayers at Chawla`s hometown of Karnal.

  • Man:

    And lift off. The SS Kaplana Chawla takes flight sights set on the International Space Station.

  • John Yang:

    In 2020, NASA launched a commercial spacecraft named after the modest but determined woman who pursued her passion inspired others and contributed to the cutting edge of science.

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