An American commercial cargo spacecraft bound for the International Space Station will fly under the name of a fallen NASA astronaut who was the first Indian-born woman to enter space; Kalpana Chawla.

Northrop Grumman has announced that its next Cygnus capsule will be named the “S.S. Kalpana Chawla,” in memory of the mission specialist who died with her six crewmates aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

A little history and remembering

Born in Haryana, India, Chawla moved to the United States to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas in 1984 and University of Colorado in 1988, respectively. She then began her career at NASA, conducting research in fluid dynamics at the Ames Research Center in California.

After becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, Chawla applied for and became a NASA astronaut as a member of “The Flying Escargot,” NASA’s 15th class of trainees. In 1997, she launched STS-87, a 15-day shuttle mission that was dedicated to science flying as part of the fourth United States Microgravity Payload (USMP-4).

Chawla’s second spaceflight, STS-107, came to a tragic end on Feb. 1, 2003, following 16 days of conducting science onboard the space shuttle Columbia. A small piece of foam that struck the orbiter’s left wing during launch created a hole that went undetected during the mission. Upon Columbia’s return to Earth, hot plasma entered the wing, tearing it apart, and the resulting loss of control led to the vehicle disintegrating and the death of the crew.

“Today we honour Kalpana Chawla, who made history at @NASA as the first female astronaut of Indian descent. Her contributions to human spaceflight have had a lasting impact,” the company tweeted on Wednesday.

“Chawla was selected in honour of her prominent place in history as the first woman of Indian descent to go to space,”

It said.

“While Chawla made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the space programme, her legacy lives on through her fellow astronauts and those she has inspired to follow in her footsteps,” it said.

The S S Kalpana Chawla capsule is scheduled to launch on the NG-14 mission atop a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on September 29. The spacecraft will arrive at and be attached to the space station two days later.

The S.S. Kalpana Chawla is the second Cygnus to be named for a member of the STS-107 crew. Columbia’s last commander, Rick Husband, was similarly honoured in 2016.

Other astronaut namesakes have been David Low, Gordon Fullerton, Janice Voss, Deke Slayton, Alan Poindexter, John Glenn, Gene Cernan, John Young, Roger Chaffee and Alan Bean.

Godspeed.

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