Kalpana Chawla, First Indian American Woman in Space

On the 20th anniversary of the Columbia space shuttle disaster, we revisit the legacy of the unlikely astronaut, who has inspired generations.

KSC-97PC-1655 large Kalpana Chawla
Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist (January 1, 1995; Johnson Space Center, TX; NASA)

Sadaf Ahsan


February 1, 2023


11 min

“I would say if you have a dream, follow it. It doesn't really matter whether you are a woman or from India or from wherever…Nothing is impossible for women, if they have a strong will.”

So said Kalpana Chawla, who spent her childhood in India watching planes fly by with her father, and dreaming of what life might be like beyond what she could see. She would become an accomplished aerospace engineer, and make her first space flight in 1997, becoming the first Indian woman to do so. Chawla, however, would meet an untimely end on February 1, 2003, on her second flight on Space Shuttle Columbia. Along with six fellow crew members, the young astronaut died at just 40 years old when the shuttle disintegrated over the southern U.S. on its reentry into the earth’s atmosphere after a 16-day mission, 16 minutes before its scheduled landing.

Chawla would leave behind an indelible legacy, having spent much of her career encouraging young Indian girls to follow in her path, to enter a field where so few women of color were and are represented. Today, the numbers aren’t quite as stark as when Chawla took her first flight. She was not only the first, but paved the way — all the way to outer space.

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