On Feb 1, was astronaut Kalpana Chawla’s 11th death anniversary. Around the same date, I got the opportunity to meet her 84-year-old father, BL Chawla, who shared some very inspiring aspects about his daughter, who till date lives in our memory as someone who reached for the stars. She undoubtedly remains a perfect example of someone who cracked the idiom, sky’s the limit should one have the passion to chase one’s dreams.
Kalpana, as per her father, was fascinated with aeroplanes ever since childhood. Her first tryst with aeroplanes was quite a chance encounter, and BL Chawla shared the incident that gave wings to Kalpana’s fantasy.
A small-time manufacturer of steel trunks, BS Chawla was approached by the local flying club to solder a part of an aeroplane. After successfully applying juggad, he, instead of charging labour, traded his effort with a visit to the flying club with his children. The club willingly obliged him and that too, with a plane ride, which left a huge impression on the tender mind of six-year-old Kalpana. Such was the impact that she would keep sketching or making aeroplanes out of paper in her class, in Tagore Niketan, Karnal.
Determined to pursue a career in aeronautics, she joined aeronautical engineering at the Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh. Since her dream was to mingle with the stars, further education to achieve her dream was only available abroad. She got admission in the University of Texas for a Masters in Aeronautical Science in 1982, but her father, who, by now had an established business of manufacturing tyres, did not have any time to hear about her big plans. Unable to share with her father her US admission, since he was always on the go, she quietly took up a teaching job at PEC against her wishes.
It was only after getting humiliated in the principal’s office that Kalpana’s father BL Chawla realised that his involvement with his business had taken him away from his daughter. “After returning from a business trip from the US, I had gone to visit Kalpana at PEC. When I met the principal to request him to call Kalpana, the principal had introduced me to a guest with the following words, ‘Meet Mr BL Chawla. The only thing he has is a lot of money and nothing else’,” said Chawla, narrating this shocker of an incident.
However, more flak was in store for him when he met Kalpana in the classroom. Frustrated over being unable to pursue her dream, Kalpana had broken down, accusing her father of ruining her career, as only three days were left for her to confirm her admission and reach USA. “Papa, you have ruined my career,” she had said. This stunned BL Chawla, who immediately pulled all strings and ensured that her daughter reach the shores of America within the stipulated time. Kalpana, after completing her Masters, earned a second Masters of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and a PhD in aerospace engineering from University of Colorado at Boulder, after which she began working for NASA.
Rest his history, and Kalpana Chawla became the first IndoAmerican astronaut to stride in space when she went on a NASA mission in 1998 aboard spacecraft STS 87.
Every time before takeoff, the family would go to the US to meet Kalpana where they would be allowed to meet her in a controlled and quarantined environment. 2003 was no different. Kalpana had again been selected for a mission, aboard Space Shuttle Colombia, STS107. BL Chawla remembers the last glimpse of his daughter through a video conference from space on the 11th day of the mission. A smiling Kalpana had waved her parents’ picture to them. Five days later, Kalpana was gone. She had become one with her first love, space. The space craft Colombia crashed on the 16th day of its voyage during re-entry into atmosphere.
Does BL Chawla regret managing things for his daughter in 1982? After all, she would not have not gone to the US had he not pulled strings. “Her contribution to the world is a memory that I am living with, so there is no question of regret,” says the brave father. Kalpana, during her lifetime, had started sponsoring two outstanding science students from her Karnal school for a 15-day visit to NASA each year, a tradition that NASA has carried forward to honour her contribution to the world. This column is dedicated to all the girls who want to follow their passion. It is also a plea to all the fathers to give wings to their daughters who wish to chase their dreams.