by Priya Chhaya
It was early morning on February 1, 2003. A group of classmates at my college and I had just arrived at a plantation home in the Tidewater region of Virginia. We were as excited as any group of young historians who had willingly risen on a Saturday morning to traipse through a colonial era plantation.
As we walked down the path towards the main building, we found ourselves greeted by Mark Warner, the Governor at that time. He told us the tragic news: at approximately 9 a.m., the Space Shuttle Columbia had disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana, killing the seven astronauts aboard.
Amidst the tragedy I learned about Kalpana Chawla, the forty-one year old Indian American who was on her second mission on the and wished that I had been more aware of her when she was alive. Part of this has to do with being self-aware that there was an Indian American woman in space, but it also involved recognizing the importance of her work—which included working in twelve hour shifts on over 80 experiments, many of which had to do with understanding the affect of space on everyday things. Unfortunately, most of the samples from these experiments were destroyed in the crash.
There is something about spaceflight that magnifies humanity. Seeing images of the stars and the planet from beyond the atmosphere is a great grounder. It serves as a reminder that life is much, much bigger than we can ever really know. When we lose those pioneers—those modern day explorers of the stars—it hits us that much harder. They have witnessed something we only see through media, never with our own eyes.
I felt the same way this past week when another female astronaut, Sally Ride, died from pancreatic cancer. Of course, she was not just another female astronaut. She was the first American woman in space. The one who paved the way for the next forty-five women who came after her. Of note were her two spaceflights and work as an investigator on both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Later, she demonstrated tirelessly through her company, Sally Ride Science, the importance of exposing girls to science at a young age.
Her legacy is best exemplified by the work of another Indian American astronaut currently residing on the International Space Station. Suni (Sunita) Williams, a native of Massachusetts, has logged more than 195 days in space. In addition to her every day duties in space, she is training for a triathalon using machines that mimic the tension and resistance that come from cycling, running, and swimming.
It’s an incredible feat that epitomizes a challenge, but it also allows her to document the effect of such exercises on the human body in a gravity-free situation—research that could be useful if we ever make the leap to becoming long-term residents of space.
Indian American girls may not be as discouraged as girls in other communities to follow careers in math and science. However, there is a level of empowerment that a young girl can get from seeing the possibility through astronauts like Chawla, Ride, and Williams—who is still working, still exploring, still looking down at the earth from the stars.
Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.