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My Friend The Astronaut

My Friend The Astronaut

July 15, 2012

From a time when role models were not limited to actors or models.

It's 2012, and Sunita Williams is making headlines in India. She is an astronaut with NASA and is going to be heading back out to space. She is also of Indian origin from her father's side.

I heard about her on TV a few hours ago here in Muscat, Oman. All the Indian news channels are talking about her.

And I suddenly miss Kalpana Chawla. Do you remember her?

It was 16 years ago in 1996 when the world first heard of Kalpana Chawla. I was 15, and it was such a huge deal for me as a young Indian school kid in Oman to hear about a female Indian astronaut. There were no Indian news channels in those days, but I did rip out stories about her from a youth magazine I used to subscribe to. How amazing was she! In those days I almost used to live in an alternate universe where the Star Trek world was real, and here was an Indian girl like me who was going into space. The final frontier! From NASA! As far as I was concerned, NASA was the real world's Starfleet Academy, and I had a crazy amount of respect for that. I had another Trekkie friend in high school who had a thing for Mr. Spock (I was a Kirk girl myself), and all I ever heard her say was that she was going to grow up and work at NASA too. It felt nice to have one of our own - brown skin, black hair, black eyes, a name that didn't sound like Smith or Sarah - out there, someone who was actually going to see the final frontier my Trekkie friends and I were always obsessing about.

The next time I heard about Kalpana Chawla was many years later in 2003. I was 22 years old and emotional-light-years away as an undergraduate student in my final semester at the Oklahoma State University out there on the American Prairie. A tragedy had occurred, and the Space Shuttle Columbia had disintegrated - along with everyone on board - over several miles in Texas while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. From what I remember, it was because of a faulty heat-resistant tile on the body of the shuttle. The shuttle had burned up and fallen apart out there in the next state in a region only 4 hours away from where I was. And Kalpana Chawla had been on board.

The American news channels had carried stories about the Columbia crew for days. One of them told a story about Kalpana, about how she had felt while looking at the Earth through a window from inside the Columbia while in space. She had seen her own reflection looking back at her, and she had been able to see the Earth in her eyes. And she had said that the Earth had looked so beautiful and so calm and quiet out there in space, and that if everyone could see what she had seen, that no one would fight each other anymore.

I miss her today. I've never had any real-life role models, never really looked up to anyone particularly while growing up, but she had felt like someone I had known. Her smiling pictures in her astronaut suit, the ones from NASA with the American flag watching over her from behind almost like it had her back, those pictures felt like she had been smiling at me. Like she knew me too. She had kind eyes. She looked like a nice, normal person. Kalpana my friend. I miss her today. 


    25.11.12 02:15 PM
  • Britul
    25.07.12 03:00 PM
    Great post.

    I was studying at 2nd yr of +2 level when the tragic incident took place ...

    Made me remember abt it ... :-)
  • Pooja Ray
    Pooja Ray
    16.07.12 12:44 PM
    Thanks a ton for this post !!
    Truly heart touching & makes self immensely proud !
  • Venu
    15.07.12 07:08 PM
    nice one Khadija, i also had not heard of, Sunita Williams, also when i was in school we were talking about Rakesh Sharma & Ashok Malhotra, I remember the broadcast when Indira Gandhi asked "upar se bharat kaise lagta hain aapko?' he replied '..sare jahan se achcha '
  • Sampada
    15.07.12 01:32 PM
    Khadija, thanks for such a nice article. You made me remember my school days, when I was awestruck to see an Indian girl fly to space; A girl who had grown up and studied in India just like me. can totally relate to your experience. :)
  • Rajpriya
    15.07.12 12:11 PM
    This article should inspire the younger generation of India into achieving rare feats. Sunita Williams had also broken a previous record by Shannon Lucid, setting a new record for females being 195 days out in space, I learned today.

    The picture with the article shows a very young Sunita. In fact she is very different and mature looking may be today.

    I had heard about Kalpana but not Sunita, Thanks for the story.
    Ssshh! And at 32 you are looking very young too.
  • Rickie Khosla
    Rickie Khosla
    15.07.12 11:37 AM
    Thanks for highlighting both these ladies - fantastic role models for Indians everywhere.
    And you are one yourself for taking the time and writing about them.


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