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India Grieves for Space Pioneer Chawla

February 2, 2003

NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ Indians mourned the loss of Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman in space, after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas minutes before it was to land Saturday in Florida.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee expressed condolences for the deaths of Chawla and her six crewmates in a message to President Bush.

``For us in India, the fact that one of them is an India-born woman adds a special poignancy to the tragedy,″ Vajpayee said Sunday.

Chawla was a new kind of heroine in India, which has launched satellites for years and is preparing for a moon orbit this decade.

``She was an accomplished astronaut and NASA is a robust organization. It will sort out the problem and spring back,″ said the head of India’s Space Research Organization, Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan.

Before lifting off on the Columbia on Jan. 16 for her second trip to space, Chawla told reporters her inspiration to take up flying was J.R.D. Tata, who flew the first mail flights in India.

After her first flight in 1997, Chawla told News India-Times of seeing India’s Himalayan Mountains and mighty rivers from space.

``The Ganges Valley looked majestic, mind-boggling,″ she said. ``Africa looked like a desert and the Nile a vein in it.″

She was born 41 years ago in Karnal, about 80 miles north of New Delhi. She later became an American citizen.

Chawla’s parents, two sisters and sister-in-law went to the United States to watch her flight, a family friend, Arun Sharma, said outside the New Delhi home of her brother, Sanjay.

Sanjay Chawla heard about the disaster while watching television.

``I immediately switched on TV news and could make out that a terrible thing has happened,″ he told reporters.

``Whenever someone in your family gets involved in this kind of project, you have to be prepared inside for this kind of news. If your child is in the army or the air force, you have to be prepared for all this.″

The residents of her hometown of Karnal had planned a celebration but instead were in shock and mourning on Saturday night after it became clear that Chawla and her six crewmates were dead.

Some 300 children at the Tagore Bal Niketan school that Chawla attended had gathered for an evening of song and dance to celebrate the expected landing of Columbia, Principal Rajan Lamba said.

``A happy occasion turned into an atmosphere of disbelief, shock and condolence,″ Lamba told The Associated Press.

A former classmate from the 1970s, Meena Bansal, told Press Trust of India, ``It is hard to believe that the girl who dreamt of going to the moon in her childhood would meet such a fate.″

In an interview with India Today in 1998, Chawla said, ``I never truly thought of being the first or second someone. Or being a small-town girl.″

She said, ``This is just something I wanted to do. It was very important for me to enjoy it.″

The PTI news agency had calculated exactly when Indians could look to the skies and wave as the space shuttle carrying mission specialist Chawla flew past in the heavens. PTI told readers in southern Bombay and Madras which minute of the day they could hail their countrywoman. The Times of India put her picture at the top of the front page in Saturday morning’s editions.

Chawla, however, said she did not feel Indian in space.

``When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system,″ she told India Today.

She emigrated to the United States in the 1980s and became a U.S. citizen. There she earned an advanced degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Texas and a doctorate from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the late 1980s.

She became an astronaut in 1994. On her first space flight, she was accused of making mistakes that sent a science satellite tumbling out of control. Other astronauts went on a space walk to capture it.

She told India Today a NASA investigation had found the accident resulted from a series of small errors.

On that 1997 flight, Chawla said that as the shuttle repeatedly passed over India, especially New Delhi, she pointed it out to the other crew members and said, ``I lived near there.″

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