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India Mourns <i>Columbia</i> Astronaut Kalpana Chawla - 2003-02-02

In India, thousands of people are mourning the death of Kalpana Chawla, the Indian-born astronaut killed along with six others when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated. People remembered 41-year-old Kalpana Chawla across the country, but the grief was deepest in Karnal, a small town on the outskirts of New Delhi, where she grew up and went to school.

Hundreds of children, residents and officials attended a prayer meeting Sunday, paying tribute to the woman who had fired their imaginations when she became the first Indian-born astronaut on a U.S. space mission. Ms. Chawla was one of seven astronauts who died Saturday when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it was preparing to land.

Temple bells rang in her honor in the town where hours earlier people were preparing to celebrate what should have been a triumphant return from her second space mission.

Kalpana Chawla left India in the 1980s for the United States, where she earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering. She became a U.S. citizen and later joined the U.S. space agency NASA in the early 1990's. She went on her first shuttle mission in 1997.

Kamlika Chandla was a close friend. She described the feelings in Ms. Chawla's former school and town. "She's actually a goddess, she's been a goddess," she said. "People worship, literally, worship her."

Tributes poured in from Indian leaders, and her relatives and friends. Television stations ran special programs on Ms. Chawla.

Adesh Gupta was her classmate. He told a television network that flying had always fascinated Ms. Chawla. "Whenever she used to hear airplanes, she used to go out of the class and look at the sky and look for the noises of the airplanes. She was excited about all these activities at that time," he said.

Dipankar Gupta is a sociologist at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. He says Indians regard Kalpana Chawla as an icon because she made her mark on the world. "We [Indians] feel we have the potential to reach world standards, but for a variety of structural reasons and other kinds of blockages, this potential has never been realized fully," he said. "So when some people are able to overcome these barriers, and really make a mark on the world stage, obviously we really feel very happy about it."

Just last month, the Indian government celebrated the achievements of millions of Indians who live overseas. Ms. Chawla's name figured at the top of a list of those whose talents have been noticed outside the country.