India Mourns Death of 'Golden Girl'

By T.C. Malhotra | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

New Delhi ( - Half a world from where the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana Saturday, celebrations at a school in northern India came to an abrupt halt as news of the tragedy broke.

The Tagore School in Karnal city was the venue for a gathering of more than 2,000 people who came to celebrate the remarkable achievement of a past pupil, Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla, returning from her second space mission.

A fireworks display "in honor of the girl who has done the school and country proud with her stupendous achievements in space" was all set to go off when television news channels broke the news of the accident.

Chawla, 41, and her six colleagues were killed shortly before the Columbia was scheduled to have landed at Florida's Kennedy Space Center at the end of a 16-day research mission.

"Everybody was shocked and saddened by the tragic turn of events," said Tagore Principal V. Rao.

He described Chawla as a girl who had always had stars in her eyes.

"None of us expected that the smiling and graceful girl would leave us so early," said Adesh Gupta, a school friend of Chawla's.

"For me, it was a privilege sharing the same bench with Kalpana in school for about eight years. Kalpana was never extraordinary in school, but she stood out for her determination."

Chawla kept close ties with the school. Rao said she sponsored two of its students each year for an international summer school space competition at NASA.

"God has been unkind to us," said Santosh Arora, Chawla's former schoolteacher. "He snatched her at a time when she was set to conquer the world. She was like a daughter to me."

Tagore pupils were to wear black armbands to classes on Monday and hold a memorial service in honor of the school's famous past pupil.

First Indian Woman in Space

Kalpana Chawla achieved icon status in her homeland on November 19, 1997, when she became the first Indian woman astronaut to go into space during a 376-hour shuttle mission.

Born in Karnal, she earned a degree in aeronautical engineering at the Punjab Engineering College after completing her schooling at Tagore.

In the 1980s, she earned her Master's degree at the University of Texas and her doctorate at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Chawla began her career at the Ames Research Center at NASA in 1988, working in the area of fluid dynamics.

NASA selected her as an astronaut candidate in 1994, and she worked on technical issues for NASA's Astronaut Office Extra Vehicular Activities (Robotics), dealing in space walks.

In her last message to students at her Punjab college, relayed from Columbia, Chawla said: "The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it."

News of Columbia's fate is reported to have devastated many of the college's 1,500 students, who grieved for the woman who was known as the institution's "golden girl."

V.S. Malhotra, Chawla's teacher and mentor at the college who had kept in touch with his student since she left in 1982, said he could not believe she was gone.

"I just cannot think of anything at the moment," he said.

Across India, news of the crash dominated conversations in coffee houses, restaurants and market places.

Indian television channels are displaying thousands of messages pouring in from all corners of the country.

Two north Indian states associated with the astronaut, Punjab and Haryana, announced special awards in memory of Chawla, for academic excellence.

Haryana, the state of her birth, also announced two days of official mourning.

The chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Dr. Kasturi Rangan, said the close-knit space community would certainly learn from the setback and find ways of improving the safety of future missions.

Rangan said India was proud of Chawla, who typified the spirit of adventure and exploration.

He noted that the ill-fated mission was Chawla's second space mission and said selecting a second time was not easy. "This is very difficult unless you are exceptional."

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee expressed his grief at the loss of the crew.

"For us in India, the fact that one of them was an India-born woman adds a special poignancy to the tragedy," he said in a message of condolence sent to President Bush.

"We convey our heartfelt sympathies at the tragedy which has overtaken space shuttle Columbia. We mourn with you in this moment of grief.

"Our hearts go out to the families of the bright young men and women who worked on that spacecraft."

President A.P.J. Abdul Kalama, a former scientist who was also the driving force of India's space program, hailed the courage of the Columbia crew and said he was "deeply pained" by the disaster.

In his letter to Bush, he said: "I join you in the hour of bereavement and pray to the Almighty to give all of us the strength and courage to bear this and move forward."

U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill issued a statement expressing "disbelief and profound sadness" over the tragedy and extending condolences to the astronauts' families.

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