First Indian-Born Woman in Space Was Homeland Heroine

Front pages of Indian newspapers Saturday carried pictures of 41-year-old Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman in space, to celebrate her expected return to earth on the space shuttle Columbia.

The return never happened after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart at 200,000 feet over Texas minutes before it was to land in Florida.

"What can anyone say except that we are aghast at the terrible tragedy," said V. Sundararamaiah, scientific secretary of the Indian Space Research Organization.

In India, which has launched satellites for years and is preparing for a moon orbit this decade, Chawla was a new kind of heroine.

Just before she lifted off on the Columbia space shuttle for her second trip to space, she told reporters that her inspiration to take up flying was J.R.D. Tata, who flew the first male flights in India.

"What J.R.D. Tata had done during those years was very intriguing and definitely captivated my imagination," Press Trust of India quoted her as saying on Jan. 16.

The Times of India reported that Chawla was married to Jean-Pierre Harrison, who it identified as an aviation writer and flying instructor.

After her previous flight, in November-December 1997, she had told News India-Times of seeing India's Himalayan Mountains and mighty rivers from space.

"The Ganges Valley looked majestic, mind boggling," she said. "Africa looked like a desert and the Nile a vein in it."

She was born 40 years ago in Karnal, about 80 miles north of New Delhi, in northern Haryana state.

The town's residents had planned a celebration, but were in shock and mourning on Saturday night.

Some 300 children at the Tagore Bal Niketan school that Chawla attended had gathered for an evening of song and dance to celebrate the expected landing of Columbia, said Principal Rajan Lamba in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

"A happy occasion turned into an atmosphere of disbelief shock and condolence," Lamba said.

Press Trust of India had calculated exactly when Indians could look to the skies and wave as the space shuttle carrying mission specialist Chawla flew past in the heavens. PTI told readers in southern Bombay and Madras which minute of the day they could hail their countrywoman.

The Times of India put her picture at the top of the front page in Saturday morning's editions, saying she and her crew mates were preparing for their homecoming.

After graduating from the Tagore School in the mid-1970s, Chawla and received a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College.<< />

After moving to the United States, she earned an advanced degree in the same field from the University of Texas, and a doctorate in her specialty from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the late 1980s.