Saturday, July 14, 2012

My Friend the Astronaut

It's 2012, and Sunita Williams is making headlines in India. She is an astronaut with NASA and is going to be heading back out to space. She is also of Indian origin from her father's side.

I heard about her on TV a few hours ago here in Muscat, Oman. All the Indian news channels are talking about her.

And I suddenly miss Kalpana Chawla. Do you remember her?

It was 16 years ago in 1996 when the world first heard of Kalpana Chawla. I was 15, and it was such a huge deal for me as a young Indian school kid in Oman to hear about a female Indian astronaut. There were no Indian news channels in those days, but I did rip out stories about her from a youth magazine I used to subscribe to. How amazing was she! In those days I almost used to live in an alternate universe where the Star Trek world was real, and here was an Indian girl like me who was going into space. The final frontier! From NASA! As far as I was concerned, NASA was the real world's Starfleet Academy, and I had a crazy amount of respect for that. I had another Trekkie friend in high school who had a thing for Mr. Spock (I was a Kirk girl myself), and all I ever heard her say was that she was going to grow up and work at NASA too. It felt nice to have one of our own - brown skin, black hair, black eyes, a name that didn't sound like Smith or Sarah - out there, someone who was actually going to see the final frontier my Trekkie friends and I were always obsessing about.

The next time I heard about Kalpana Chawla was many years later in 2003. I was 22 years old and emotional-light-years away as an undergraduate student in my final semester at the Oklahoma State University out there on the American Prairie. A tragedy had occurred, and the Space Shuttle Columbia had disintegrated - along with everyone on board - over several miles in Texas while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. From what I remember, it was because of a faulty heat-resistant tile on the body of the shuttle. The shuttle had burned up and fallen apart out there in the next state in a region only 4 hours away from where I was. And Kalpana Chawla had been on board.

The American news channels had carried stories about the Columbia crew for days. One of them told a story about Kalpana, about how she had felt while looking at the Earth through a window from inside the Columbia while in space. She had seen her own reflection looking back at her, and she had been able to see the Earth in her eyes. And she had said that the Earth had looked so beautiful and so calm and quiet out there in space, and that if everyone could see what she had seen, that no one would fight each other anymore.

I miss her today. I've never had any real-life role models, never really looked up to anyone particularly while growing up, but she had felt like someone I had known. Her smiling pictures in her astronaut suit, the ones from NASA with the American flag watching over her from behind almost like it had her back, those pictures felt like she had been smiling at me. Like she knew me too. She had kind eyes. She looked like a nice, normal person. Kalpana my friend. I miss her today.

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