Reaching for the stars

The past fortnight saw two women of Indian origin in the limelight: Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Lyn Williams, both space engineers, chosen by NASA for expeditions. These two women have realized their dreams of reaching out for the stars, their journeys have been long and arduous; but that is behind them now and they are concentrating on the demanding task at hand.

Kalpana Chawla

Mid January saw Kalpana Chawla blast off to space on her second voyage. Kalpana was the first woman of Indian origin to be sent in to space in November 1997, as a member of the six-astronaut crew that embarked on the Columbia Flight STS-87.

In this second mission to space, Kalpana and the crew will carry out several experiments to analyze changes that take place in human beings and proteins under zero gravity conditions. The results of these experiments would go a long way in developing medicines to treat several diseases, including cancer.


During a pre-flight talk with reporters, Kalpana said that it was JRD Tata who had fuelled her imagination and encouraged her to take up a career in aeronautics. She said, ""What J R D Tata had done during those years was very intriguing and definitely captivated my imagination."


Kalpana grew up in Karnal, Haryana and later did her Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College; she was the only girl in the aeronautics batch. A strong-willed girl from childhood, Kalpana fought long hard battles with her conservative family in order to realize her dream. She later went to the US and earned her Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas and a Doctorate of Philosophy in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado.


Kalpana's first expedition 

On her first expedition, Kalpana was the only woman in the six-member crew. The crew spent 16 days in orbit studying the effects of microgravity on a variety of materials, focusing on how metal and crystals solidify when removed from the distorting effects of gravity.


The initial training before the launch, included water survival skills, which would prepare the crew for mishaps. Despite a degree in aerospace engineering, NASA was looking for a candidate's ability to solve technical problems. In an interview, Kalpana recalls, "It's more important to have a proven track record as a scientist rather than knowledge in any specific's how someone tackles a problem that's important." Her exposure to a variety of computer systems at the NASA Ames Research Centre in California came in handy during this training.


About her desire to become an astronaut and flying in general, Kalpana said in an interview, "I like airplanes, it's that simple. The theoretical side is mentally challenging but flying for me is sheer fun. It appeals to all my senses. The astronaut's job requires a technical background and a strong desire... to go out in the blue yonder."


Sunita Lyn Williams

The second woman of Indian origin to go into space was Sunita Lyn Williams. She has been selected by NASA for the backup crew for one of its space missions for the International Space Station Expedition - 10.


Selected in 1998 by NASA, Sunita underwent training in space station flight engineering, ahead of the mission. This training also includes orientation briefings, tours, numerous scientific and technical briefings and intensive instruction in Shuttle and International Space Station systems. During the training, Sunita had to undergo physiological training as well as water and wilderness survival techniques. Following this period of training and evaluation, Williams will receive technical assignments within the Astronaut Office before being assigned to a space flight.


During one of her training Sunita also went to an underwater habitat called Aquarius; this is an underwater ocean laboratory located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and is 60-feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean.

Born and brought up in the United States, Sunita is a graduate of the US Naval Academy. She has more than 2,300 flying hours in 30 different aircrafts, two Navy co