Indians are expressing shock at the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and the first Indian-born woman to travel in space, 41-year-old astronaut Kalpana Chawla. Senior Indian officials said they were saddened by the loss of the shuttle, and offered condolences to Kalpana Chawla's family.

Kalpana Chawla was a national heroine in India. Her official NASA portrait was recently on the cover of a leading Indian news magazine, which voted her the most prominent among millions of Indians to emigrate overseas.

Born in Karnal, in northern India's Haryana state, Kalpana Chawla received an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab University in 1982. After moving to the United States, she earned a masters and a doctorate in the same field. She also became a U.S. citizen.

In 1994, she was selected by NASA for a rigorous one-year training program to serve as a mission specialist on board shuttle missions. On her first shuttle flight in 1997, she was initially blamed for allowing a small satellite to spin out of control. However, a post-flight NASA evaluation absolved her of blame.

Speaking just prior to the shuttle Columbia's launch last month, Kalpana Chawla said she was awed by space travel. "Just looking at earth, looking at the stars during the night part of earth; just looking at our planet roll by and the speed at which it goes by and the awe that it inspires; just so many such good thoughts come to your mind when you see all that," she said. "Doing it again is like living a dream, a good dream once again."

Kalpana Chawla's parents and several siblings had traveled to the United States to witness her most recent shuttle mission. Many Karnal residents had gathered at her former school to celebrate the shuttle's return to earth.

India's leading space scientists are also expressing shock at the news of the loss of the shuttle. India has launched numerous satellites, and is planning a mission to orbit the moon by the end of the decade.