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Punjab Engineering College Honors First Indian Female Astronaut - 2003-02-07

About 400 students and teachers at space shuttle astronaut Kalpana Chawla's former college in India, observed two minutes of silence on Monday to honor the memory of the aerospace engineer.

Ms. Chawla, who was born in northern India and attended Punjab Engineering College at Chandigar for four years, was one of seven astronauts killed when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry into the earth's atmosphere on Saturday after 16 days in space. In the United States, space flight is so commonplace these days that astronauts are rarely thought of as heroes anymore, much less celebrities. But in India, Kalpana Chawla was considered a national heroine, long before last Saturday. Ms. Chawla was the first Indian-born crewmember of a U.S. space mission and India's second astronaut. The first flew on a Soviet mission in 1984.

Before becoming an astronaut, Ms. Chawla worked at NASA's Ames Research Center doing aeronautical work. That's where she met Inderjit Chopra, a professor of aeronautics at the University of Maryland also doing work for NASA. Both had attended the same university in India, but Professor Chopra had graduated a few years before her, so they never met in India.

Mr. Chopra recalls being very impressed with Kalpana Chawla's warm personality and intelligence. He was also amazed at the odds she overcame to work for NASA and then go on to become an astronaut.

"When you see somebody with very humble beginnings, that can reach to that level, it is very inspiring to lot of people," he said. "She did not belong to any rich family or anything like that; she went up this ladder just because of her education and hard work. It was extremely difficult when she got into the astronaut program, she was still a foreign national and then being selected among thousands of applicants. I would say she was very dedicated, very smart and a very motivated person."

Another former Punjab Engineering student, Amit Singh also has nothing but praise for Ms. Chawla. Mr. Singh attended the college 18 years after Ms. Chawla and says many of the professors there pointed to her as an inspirational example.

"This is the only girl from India that has achieved such heights," Mr. Singh said. "When she went on her first [space] flight in 1997, there was a big celebration back in our school and we sent her a school logo with all the students signing it and giving our best wishes to her. So this is a big achievement. She was everywhere in all the newspapers and all the magazines. So it's like from nowhere to the top of the world."

Ms. Chawla's success was a major influence on Mr. Singh as he worked his way through the aeronautics program at Punjab Engineering College. Like Ms. Chawla, he later came to the United States to pursue his Master's level studies in America. Mr. Singh says he would love to become an astronaut himself someday. He recalls that his passion for aeronautical engineering began with watching planes in the sky, but was inspired by role models like Ms. Chawla. And he says her death will have a profound impact, especially in her native country.

"I will just say that it is a big loss for a country like India," he said. "I mean, although she was a U.S. citizen, but it is a big loss where the girls are growing up to lose a girl who has achieved so much."

While Ms. Chawla's death is a loss for India, the United States and supporters of space exploration around the world Professor Inderjit Chopra believes it will also draw wider attention to her remarkable life and achievements:

"It will make her more of a hero. People look at it very differently, because the amount of visibility she got was so enormous," he said. "All of these top leaders both from India as well as the United States mentioning her name itself is a big honor. So even though she died, she got a lot of recognition from this." Punjab Engineering College has announced it is instituting an award in Kalpana Chawla's memory, to honor the best students in the Department of Aeronautical Studies.