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Kalpana Chawla died on February 1, 2003 as the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated 16 minutes prior to landing. She was born in Karnal in the state of Punjab in India. A graduate in aeronautical engineering from the Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh, she began her career at the Ames Research Center at NASA in 1988 working on fluid dynamics.

Following her successful tenure at the Ames, Chawla in 1993 joined the Overset Methods Inc in California as vice president and a research scientist in charge of simulating various body functions for future space missions. She earned a doctorate of philosophy in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado in 1988, and a master's of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas in 1984.

NASA selected Chawla as an astronaut candidate in 1994 and she joined the 15th group of astronauts in March 1995. After a year of training and evaluation, Chawla was assigned as a crew representative to work on technical issues for NASA's Astronaut Office Extra Vehicular Activities, Robotics, dealing in space walks.She was instrumental in the testing of space control software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory.

It was her second flight aboard Columbia. In 1997 she was a mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator for STS-87. In completing her first mission, she traveled 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of the Earth and logged 376 hours in space.

Her greatest achievement was in acting as a role model for millions of young men and women from India who have been horrified by her death. The Prime Minister of India has condoled her death and the nation is in a state of shock. And even though she was a naturalised US citizen, most of her family including her parents and her brother live in different parts of North India. She will be remembered with great pride and affection by the people of India for her extraordinary achievements.

May her soul rest in peace.

This is to carry on from my previous biography of Kalpana Chawla. It seems to me that she as well as the others who perished on that ill fated journey aboard the Columbia are now being portrayed as martyrs. Doing so only cheapens their memory and all that they stood for. They were courageous and talented human beings on a dangerous mission, and the tragedy lies not just in their death, but also in the manner of their death.

At the cost of being cynical, it is true that hundreds of people die everyday to which we turn a blind eye (8000 people die merely of AIDS per day). But it is only when something as dramatic as this, happens live on international television that our own mortality is brought home to us. If we wish to remember not just Kalpana Chawla and the other astronauts fittingly, I think we should remember them not as martyrs to a cause, but as special people who will be sorely missed.

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