Chawla was born in Karnal, India in 1961 the third of four children, and died in the tragedy of the Columbia space shuttle as it was destroyed when entering orbit on February 1, 2003 over the southern United States 16 minutes before the landing. Kalpana Chawla had a certified flight instructor license for single-engine, multi-engine, gliders, seaplanes, and even for instrument control on airplanes.
Chawla graduated from the Tagore School in Karnal, India, in 1976. In 1982 she obtained a Bachelor of Aeronautical Engineering from the Punjab College of Engineering, being one of the first four women to obtain a Bachelor of Engineering in India. That same year she moved to the United States against her family’s wishes and in 1984 she obtained a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas, and in 1988, a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. She married the pilot Jean-Pierre Harrison, her first flight instructor and one of the people who according to Chawla gave her the most support and never doubted her abilities.
In 1988 Chawla began work at the Ames Research Center in the area of computerized lift energy fluid dynamics. Her research focused on simulating complex air currents found around aircraft such as the Harrier in «ground effect.» After the completion of this project, she continued with the investigation of the mapping of solvent flows in computers, and studied these flows through complicated calculations. In 1993, she joined Overset Methods Inc., in Los Altos, California, as vice president and research scientist to team up with other researchers specializing in simulating problems involving multiple body motion. She was responsible for the development and implementation of efficient techniques for dynamic optimization performance. The results of various projects in which Kalpana Chawla participated are documented in technical conference publications and trade journals.
Kalpana Chawla was selected by NASA in 1994 and presented to the Johnson Space Center in March 1995 as an astronaut candidate in the 15th Astronaut Group. After completing a year of training and evaluation, she was assigned as a crew representative to work on technical issues for the Office of Astronauts in the Extravehicular Activities and Robotics Divisions and also in Computing. Her assignments included work on the development of Robotic Information Systems and testing the Space Shuttle control program at the Shuttle Integration Laboratory. In November 1996, she was assigned as a mission specialist and lead robotic arm operator on the STS-87 mission. In January 1998, she was selected as a representative of the shuttle crew and flight station crew, subsequently she served as the Leader of the Crew Habitability and Systems section for the Office of Astronauts. She first flew into space on STS-87 and STS-107. Kalpana Chawla logged a total of 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space.