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She was an American aerospace engineer whose expertise was fluid dynamics. Yet one of the most important things Kalpana Chawla left us had nothing to do with liquids and gases. 

On her first space mission in 1997, she looked out the shuttle window at the Earth and saw the distinct shape of the Indian Subcontinent. She saw the majestic Himalayan mountain chain. She saw the valley of the Ganges River. 

As the shuttle continued to revolve around the Earth it passed over India, again and again, and Kalpana Chawla would point out New Delhi to her fellow crew members.  

Chawla was an exceptional communicator who used her voice to advance knowledge about science and humanity.

“I lived near there,” she said, with the enthusiasm of a child. She never got tired of looking. 

This Memorial Day, we remember Kalpana Chawla — who died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia explosion, which killed all seven astronauts.

Chawla was an exceptional communicator who used her voice to advance knowledge about science and humanity.

See this short clip from January 29, 2003, three days before her death — she describes what it’s like to watch out the window of the shuttle “just after the sunset and watch the stars in the big black dome of the sky as the Earth moves underneath. . . it is just absolutely amazing, magical, wonderful feeling to do that.”

Chawla was fiercely proud of her national heritage, yet surprised to discover that in space, she did not feel Indian or American. In space, she realized she was a “citizen of the universe.”

You can also watch her last message from space, when she spoke with Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral. He told her the women and youth of India, in particular, took great pride in her accomplishments.

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She painted a picture of what it was like to be in space, with words:

“It’s a very special feeling, really, up here, the night sky,” she told him. “. . . it’s a dome of a dark sky, and stars everywhere, and the Earth covered with thunderstorms here and there, with some small lightning and every once in a while, city lights through the clouds. It’s very much like a storybook.”

. . . in space, she did not feel Indian or American. In space, she realized she was from the planet Earth. 

Kalpana Chawla reminds us that we are all share the planet Earth, and we are all interdependent. 

Regardless of the lines that demarcate and define nationhood, we are all inheritors of the Earth’s bounty and its beauty, and we all share its fate.

 

 

 

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