When Kalpana Chawla left home more than 20 years ago, small town India expected its young women to get married, have babies and settle into lives dictated by generations of tradition.

But Chawla, the youngest daughter in a wealthy factory-owning family, chose another path. Her ambitions took her from her hometown in northern India to a doctorate in aerospace engineering, to a life in Texas -- and finally to the weightlessness of space.

Chawla, 41, was one of seven astronauts killed Saturday when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, scattering debris across hundreds of square miles.

In Karnal, a drab industrial town where cars jockey for space on pitted asphalt streets with buffalo carts and bicycle rickshaws, Chawla had long been a hero. Under a chilly, steel-gray sky on Sunday, she was mourned like one.

Dozens of people stopped by her childhood home, and hundreds gathered at her high school, Tagore Baal Niketan, to pray at a makeshift shrine. In the Hindu tradition, incense burned in front of her photograph, which was draped in garlands of marigolds.

Later, even more people came for prayers outside the town's administrative offices, where a shrine was set up in the parking lot.

"It is a terrible shock, a terrible shock," said Vijay Setia, a cousin who lives in the sprawling concrete house where Chawla was born and spent much of her childhood. Most of Chawla's immediate family was in the United States for her planned Saturday landing. "No one could imagine that a disaster like this could happen."

Chawla, who became an American citizen in the 1980s and had spent little time in Karnal in recent years, was still honored as a daughter of her town.

Her 1997 space flight, the first by an Indian-born woman, had made her a powerful symbol of achievement.

"It was a very great loss for our county," said Vivek Nagpal, an 18-year-old graduate of the Tagore high school. "She proved that nothing is impossible."

Much of Chawla's journey, though, was difficult.

Technical mistakes Chawla made on the 1997 flight caused a satellite to tumble out of control, forcing other astronauts to retrieve it on a spacewalk. NASA later acknowledged that crew instructions may not have been clear.

"I stopped thinking about it after trying to figure out what are the lessons learned," she said later. "I figured it's time to really look at the future."

The mishap did little to her image in India, where her career was closely followed.

In Karnal, Chawla's mottos -- dream, persevere, succeed -- have long been repeated like an inspirational creed.

"She said that you should dream, because she had dreamed, and look what happened to her," said Namita Alung, a 16-year-old girl whom Chawla had sponsored for Space Camp, an American program for aspiring astronauts.

Alung said her family encouraged her to go to the camp -- far different from Chawla's early experiences. "It was difficult for women then," Alung said.

Part tomboy who cut her own hair and part shy bookworm, Chawla dismayed her family as a teenager by announcing she wanted to study aeronautical engineering at Punjab University, some 100 miles from home. The resistance was intense.

"In our families, in Indian families, it is not normal to give freedom to a girl like this," said Setia, her cousin. Uncles sought to keep her in Karnal. Her relentless demands, and her mother's eventual support, finally earned her freedom. But there were costs.

"Only because I was a girl, people gave a hard time to my mother because she sent me to school in another town," Chawla said in a 1998 interview with News-India Times. "How would you feel if people don't approve of what you are doing or your mother is doing for you?"

Later, she went much further from home, earning an advanced degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Texas and a doctorate from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

A woman from a generation and culture where arranged marriages were the norm, Chawla married an American flight instructor, Jean-Pierre Harrison. In a time when many Indian women still mark their lives by the number of sons they've had, Chawla and Harrison had no children.

The lessons were lost on few of Karnal's women.

On Sunday, Joy Sidhu, a schoolteacher and vice principal, brought her 15-year-old daughter and other girls to the civic memorial.

Afterward, they stood at the edge of the crowd, watching the crush of local officials, nearly all men, push to have their pictures taken while they laid wreaths.

"I brought them here so I could say 'Look, there are options for you,"' Sidhu said of her students. "'There is marriage and there are children, but there are other choices as well."'