Kalpana Chawla was a national heroine in India. Her official NASA portrait graced the cover of a leading Indian news magazine, which voted her the most well-known among millions of Indians to emigrate overseas.
Born in Karnal, India, she earned an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab University in 1982.
After moving to the United States, she earned a master's and a doctorate in the same field. She also became a U.S. citizen.
In 1994, she was selected by NASA for a rigorous one-year training program to serve as a mission specialist on board shuttle missions.
On her first spaceflight, in 1996, she was blamed for making mistakes, as the prime robotic arm operator, which sent a science satellite tumbling out of control. However, a post-flight NASA evaluation absolved her of blame.
Prior to the shuttle Columbia's launch, Chawla, who had logged more than 375 hours in space, told reporters that her inspiration to take up flying was J.R.D. Tata, who flew the first mail flights in India.
The first Indian or Indian-American to fly with a U.S. space shuttle crew, Chawla said she was enthralled by space travel.
"Just looking at Earth, looking at the stars during the night part of Earth; just looking at our planet roll by and the speed at which it goes by and the awe that it inspires; just so many such good thoughts come to your mind when you see all that," she said. "Doing it again is like living a dream — a good dream — once again."
Her parents and siblings had traveled to the United States to witness her shuttle mission.
About her parents, Chawla said: "They are conservative, but very different from lots of other parents. For example, my father never gave me a hard time on career choices. There wasn't any, 'No, absolutely not.' You could always say, 'But, I want to do it.' If you said it enough times, then you would have it."
She is survived by her husband, Jean-Pierre Harrison, a free-lance flying instructor.