- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

NEW DELHI, Feb. 2 (UPI) — Hundreds of people Sunday flocked to a prayer meeting at a school in northern India where Columbia astronaut Kalpana Chawla had studied.

Teachers, students and people from the street bowed in reverence before the picture of 41-year-old India-born astronaut who perished along with six other colleagues aboard ill-fated shuttle Columbia Saturday.

People held each other's hands and tears rolled down many a cheeks as religious hymns were sung at Tagore Bal Niketan School in Karnal town where Chawla first dreamt of flying into the orbit.

Wreaths were placed at the Kalpana Vigyan Kaksh, the school's science room that was named for the astronaut when she made her first foray into space in 1997.

News reports say several prayer meetings were held across India to mourn its first-ever woman astronaut who was featured last month on the cover of India's leading weekly India Today.

There is a pall of gloom across India. Not everyone knew about Chawla or had heard about her, but there was a streak of sadness on most faces as if someone near had died.

Millions of Indians woke to up on a foggy Sunday to read screaming news headlines saying the country's first-ever woman astronaut, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen, had perished in the Columbia space shuttle mishap.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee led the nation in mourning Chawla, who was the flight engineer aboard the Columbia shuttle, which burst into flames at the height of 63,000 meters (207,000 feet), a few minutes prior to its scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

In a message to U.S. President George W. Bush, Vajpayee said, "We convey our heartfelt sympathies at the tragedy which has overtaken the space shuttle Columbia. We mourn with you in this moment of grief and our hearts go out to the families of the bright young men and women who worked on the spacecraft."

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

"We in India had been specially proud that our own Kalpana Chawla was part of this space mission. Alas, we have tragically, though heroically, lost her. We are proud of you, Kalpana, we salute you," India's President A.P. J. Abdul Kalam said.

India's federal Cabinet Minister Murli Manohar Joshi described Chawla as "a worthy daughter of India'' and added the loss for the nation was irreparable.

India's junior home minister I.D. Swamy said the government would build a medical college-cum-hospital in Chawla's memory in Karnal. The provincial government of Haryana in northern India declared a two-day state mourning for Chawla.

Chawla's brother in New Delhi was in shock after hearing the news.

"Whenever you are involved in such tasks, one should be prepared for such things. Like when you are in the army, one should be ready for such news. If it could happen to others, it could happen to you as well. This time it has happened to us," Star TV news quoted Sanjay Chawla as saying.

Hundreds of people are posting messages on Web sites to express their sympathy with the bereaved family and to salute the national heroine.

"Kalpana — the word means imagination. Kalpana Chawla — the woman who turned her dreams into reality — the woman who turned our pride into glory forever — the woman who reached the stars & now stays with them. Thanks for being an Indian. Thanks for every drop of pride you gave us," reader Rahul Dhanuka said in his condolence message on the online edition of The Times of India.

Chawla became a national heroine in 1997 when made her first space journey aboard Columbia. Many Indians found a similarity in the names of her hometown, Karnal, and Cape Canaveral.

Millions of Indian remained glued to their television sets through Saturday night to watch the news and prayed for a miracle. Hundreds of people in Karnal prayed at local temples for a divine intervention.

" God didn't listen to us," Bhag Singh, a resident of Karnal told United Press International over telephone. "She's taken the eternal flight," Singh said.

Newspapers across India splashed headlines to break the Columbia news.

"Kalpana's Columbia explodes," the banner headline of Indian Express read while The Hindu headlined the news "A bolt from the blue."

The Times of India said, "Nation grieves its woman of substance."

"Karnal mourns its proud daughter," said Deccan Herald.

Most newspapers ran stories quoting Chawla's relatives, classmates and teachers who fondly remembered her as a dynamic, brilliant and an outstanding student who knew what she wanted in life.

"She was extremely dynamic student," Professor Y.S. Chauhan of Chawla's alma mater, the Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh, told United Press International.

Chauhan had taught Chawla aircraft propulsion, theoretical aerodynamics and aircraft materials. "I taught her these subjects and I am disturbed that these very subjects might be involved in the disintegration of the shuttle," he said.

Chawla's family friend Pinky Singh said Kalpana never compromised on anything — not even when it came to join the aeronautical studies against her father's wishes.

Singh described Kalpana as a headstrong girl who opposed her father to study aeronautical engineering, becoming India's first-ever woman astronaut.

Her love affair with the skies extended to her personal life as well and she married freelance flying instructor Jean-Pierre Harrison.

Chawla was flight engineer and mission specialist aboard the shuttle Columbia. She graduated from Punjab Engineering College before beginning work at NASA Ames Research Center in fluid dynamics. She received a master's degree in 1984 from the University of Texas, and in 1988 received doctorate of philosophy in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado.

NASA selected Chawla as an astronaut candidate in 1994, and she joined the 15th group of astronauts in March 1995.

"I was not born for one corner," Chawla had said once quoting philosopher Seneca. "The whole universe is my native land."

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