On February 1, 2003, as the world waited for the return of the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-107, it disintegrated over Texas during its re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. The disaster killed a seven-member crew including Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman to have been to space.
Seventeen years later, her father, Banarasi Lal Chawla, says that Kalpana had one dream only - that no child, especially girls, should ever be deprived of education.
Chawla opens up about his daughter, whom he lovingly called 'Mantu', in a new docu-series for National Geographic, Mega Icons. Ecstatic about the documentary, the proud father believes that the more people get to know who his daughter really was, the more they'll aspire to become like her.
Kalpana, who was born in Karnal, started working at the NASA Ames Research Center in 1988. In 1997, she became the first Indian woman and second Indian to fly to space in her flight on the Space Shuttle Columbia. In 2000, Kalpana was selected for her second flight as a part of the crew of STS-107 but it turned out to be her last. Kalpana was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, NASA Space Flight Medal and NASA Distinguished Service Medal.
In order to honour her, NASA named one of its spacecraft after Kalpana Chawla. The resupply spacecraft reached the International Space station (ISS) this week, carrying nearly 8,000 pounds of scientific investigations.
"Kalpana was about three or four years old when she first saw a plane. She had been playing on the rooftop when she saw a plane flying above our house. She seemed so excited. I took her to the flying club near our house where a pilot agreed to take us for a ride. Kalpana's joys knew no bounds. She had always wanted to fly," the astronaut's father Banarasi Lal Chawla told News18.
On being asked when he knew that Kalpana was meant to fly, Banarasi Lal Chawla said, "When Kalpana was in school, her teachers would tell us that she spends her free time making paper planes and flying them. That had always been her hobby. That eventually led her to becoming an astronaut."
After completing her high school education, Kalpana attended Punjab Engineering College where she studied aeronautical engineering. "When Kalpana went to Chandigarh, the professors of the college initially tried to dissuade her from taking up the course. They told her that there was no scope for this subject in India. But she was adamant," Banarasi Lal Chawla said.
Chawla added that his daughter had an 'indomitable spirit'.
"She earned well while working at NASA. But she never cared for materialistic things. She would spend all her money on helping underprivileged kids with education. She would reach out to students who were unable to complete their education due to financial constraints and help them out as far as she could," he said.
In 1998, the astronaut started the tradition of sending two kids from India to NASA every year. She would be a part of the selection and the interview process. Chawla had helped send fourteen Indian children to NASA.
"I was not thinking about education when Kalpana said she wanted to go to the United States, I just wanted to give her everything she wanted," said Banarasi Lal Chawla.
In India, millions of young girls continue to be deprived of primary education. A report suggested that the Coronavirus pandemic may have made things worse as children moved to online classrooms. The report revealed that many girls may never return to school even when the pandemic ends.
According to the United Nation, almost 24 million children are at risk of not returning to school next year due to the economic fallout of COVID-19.
Chawla has one word of advice for parents, "Just listen to your daughters, listen to what they have to say. They want to study, let them. Support them. Make sure they have all that they need to simply focus on their education."