Northrop Grumman Corp. will honor STS-107 astronaut Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla when it launches its next Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS). Liftoff of the NG-14 mission—the 15th Cygnus to be launched and the ninth to be equipped with an “enhanced” Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM)—is targeted to occur from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., no sooner than 10:27 p.m. EDT on 29 September. Boosted into orbit atop Northrop Grumman’s Antares 230+ rocket, it is expected that NG-14 will spend three months in space and deliver a whopping 7,623 pounds (3,458 kg) of equipment, payloads and supplies to the station for the incumbent Expedition 63 and forthcoming Expedition 64 crews.
“Chawla was selected in honor of her prominent place in history as the first woman of Indian descent to go to space,” Northrop Grumman revealed in its announcement of the name on Tuesday.
Right from the start, Cygnus missions have been named for giants of the aerospace world. It was a tradition which began with the spacecraft’s original builder, Orbital Sciences Corp., which merged in 2014 with Alliant TechSystems to become Orbital ATK, Inc., before being purchased by Northrop Grumman in 2018.
All but three Cygnuses have recognized deceased veteran astronauts—six shuttle flyers, three Moonwalkers and dual recognition for “Original Seven” Project Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton—together with unflown Apollo 1 hero Roger Chaffee, former NASA Deputy Administrator James “J.R.” Thompson and the first African-American candidate for astronaut training, Robert H. Lawrence.
Chawla is not the first member of STS-107, the ill-fated final voyage of shuttle Columbia, to be so honored, since Commander Rick Husband was recognized on the OA-6 Cygnus mission, launched back in March 2016. But her nomination is especially significant, for she was the first American woman of Indian ancestry to fly into space. Originally from Karnal, India, NASA initially revealed Chawla’s birth date as 1 July 1961, but it later came to light that her actual date of birth was 17 March 1962 and had been adjusted to allow her to be enrolled in school at a younger-than-normal age.
Youngest of four children, Chawla was schooled in Karnal and developed an early love for aircraft and aerospace engineering, opting to study physics, chemistry and mathematics. Occasionally, her father took her for flights in a two-seater Pushpak aircraft, courtesy of a local flying club, and she grew up learning of the exploits of the French-born Indian aviator J.R.D. Tata (1904-1993), India’s first licensed pilot, who made some of the country’s first mail flights.
“The airplane that he flew now hangs in one of the aerodromes and I had a chance to see,” Chawla reflected. “Seeing this airplane and just knowing what this person had done during those years was very intriguing. Definitely captured my imagination.”
She earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh, capital of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, in 1982. Chawla then moved to the United States and gained a master’s credential in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984. Next came a second master’s in 1986 and a doctorate in aerospace engineering in 1988, both from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
She joined NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., working on power-lift computational flight dynamics, with an emphasis upon simulating complex airflows encountered around aircraft. Chawla supported research into the mapping of flow solvers to parallel computers and testing these solvers with powered-lift computations.
She joined Overset Methods, Inc., in Los Altos, Calif., in 1993, as vice president and research scientist to simulate moving multiple-body problems. Her responsibilities entailed developing and implementing efficient techniques for aerodynamic optimization. Selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in December 1994, she qualified as a Mission Specialist in early 1996.
In November of that same year, Chawla drew her first flight assignment when she was named to the crew of STS-87. The 16-day mission took place in the fall of 1997 and involved a wide range of microgravity research payloads, a Spartan solar-physics platform—whose problematic deployment and retrieval was initially blamed on Chawla and the crew, although they were eventually exonerated—and a pair of spacewalks, including the first by a Japanese astronaut.
Following STS-87, Chawla was assigned as crew representative for shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) flight crew equipment and later led the Astronaut Office’s Crew Systems and Habitability section. In September 2000, she was named to the crew of STS-107, originally targeted for launch in August 2001 but extensively postponed due to delays in getting shuttle Columbia ready for flight and a long line of ISS assembly missions.
STS-107, a 16-day research mission incorporating the first (and only) use of the Spacehab Research Double Module, eventually launched in January 2003. Chawla served as the flight engineer for the mission and participated in over 80 scientific and medical investigations. She and her crewmates lost their lives on the morning of 1 February 2003, when Columbia disintegrated high above Texas during re-entry.
In its summary of the naming decision, Northrop Grumman noted that Chawla had “devoted her entire life to understanding flight dynamics” and that her “ultimate sacrifice” on STS-107 has created a legacy which lives on through current and future astronauts. “Her final research conducted on-board Columbia helped us understand astronaut health and safety during spaceflight,” it was revealed. “Northrop Grumman is proud to celebrate the life of Kalpana Chawla and her dream of flying through the air and in space.”
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