Inside a barn-like hangar that sits on a wide green field at the municipal airport here, Debby Rihn ran her hand along the smooth hide of a Pitts S2-B and remembered Kalpana Chawla. "She loved this airplane," Rihn said, because it rides like a motorcycle in the sky.
But Chawla never flew it. Her feet couldn't reach the control pedals, even after Rihn and her crew at the Harvey & Rihn Aviation flight school stuffed square foam cushions the size of telephone books around the hard black seats. And so for seven years, Chawla, a tiny astronaut who blasted off into space aboard the most powerful airplane in the world, resigned herself to honing her pilot skills by performing dips and turns in a rented Citabria, a slow and boxy acrobatic airplane that is powered by the rough equivalent of a NASCAR engine.
The story of how Chawla, a native of India who stood only five feet tall, soared above the rest of the world in the space shuttle was legend even before her death. She was aboard Columbia with six other astronauts when the ship reentered Earth's atmosphere Saturday, disintegrated, then fell to Earth in bits and pieces from the skies over Texas.
She was born half a world away from where she died, in a dusty little village called Karnal, just north of New Delhi, and grew into a wildly ambitious kid known by the affectionate nickname Montoo.
Friends remembered the 41-year-old explorer as a perfectionist with a blind determination to fly, and as a prankster with the squealing laugh of a teenage girl. Chawla didn't fit the cliche of the dowdy scientist, friends say. Her chocolaty eyes were as brown as a cup of cocoa, her teeth were mica white and perfectly straight against smooth tan skin, and her smile seemed everlasting.
Losing K.C., said one friend, left "sort of a hole in your stomach." Others accepted the tragedy with Chawla's determined sense of optimism.
"She died doing exactly what she wanted to do," said Rich Acuff, a flight instructor and friend who went for a ride with Chawla when she lived in Mountain View, Calif., near San Jose. "What a way to go, doing something you absolutely love, and she loved to fly, absolutely."
In space, along with her science projects, Chawla carried mementos from her elementary school in Karnal, and 20 CDs from Indian musicians such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Hariprasad Chaurasia, along with jazz from Thelonious Monk and hard rock from the group Deep Purple, with tracks such as "Space Truckin' " and "The Aviator."
Her husband, Jean-Pierre Harrison, shared that information online, on the Web page of Deep Purple's vocalist Ian Gillan, which was adorned with the logo for the shuttle flight, STS-107. "She and I attended the Deep Purple concert in Bossier City, Louisiana, during the 2001 tour, her first-ever rock concert and my first-ever DP concert," he wrote. Chawla, a Hindu and vegetarian, was "not exactly a rock music aficionado, but characterized the show as a spiritual experience."
Such experiences were important to Chawla. Aboard an earlier flight on Columbia, in November 1997, she always searched for a spot near the window to watch the furious sunrises and golden sunsets that lit up space in rapid succession.
"She told me she would eat all her meals by the window," said Robert Culp, a professor who advised Chawla during her doctoral dissertation and shared lunch with her several times a year. "She was so engrossed by what she saw that she missed her mouth, and food was floating all around her."
That flight had a bad moment. Chawla, a mission specialist, was in charge of the robotic arm that released a 3,000-pound satellite into space. When it failed to operate, she tried to grab it, but closed the hand too quickly. The arm tapped the satellite and sent it spinning away from the ship.
Two other mission specialists, Takao Doi and Winston E. Scott, retrieved it during a spacewalk. "I really don't want to get into all that," said Scott, who now works in the engineering department at Florida State University. "It was a procedural error that the crew made, and we were all blamed.
"There were thousands of procedural steps, and she was very focused, very intelligent," he said. "I was a spacewalker. K.C. was our internal coordinator. She was responsible for moving me around on the rope I was on. My safety depended on her. I absolutely trusted her, and I would again. I have a special feeling for her as a colleague and a friend."
When Kalpana Chawla was born July 1, 1961, in Karnal, her mother was surprised to see that the infant with the furious kick was a girl. She turned out to be more ambitious than any boy in her village, including her older brother Sanjay.
It showed in the way she fought for privileges girls were denied. In 1976, over the objections of her father, Banarasi Lal Chawla, she left home to attend the Punjab Engineering College in nearby Chandigarh.
Her father, too, had exercised a strong will to achieve above expectations. He was penniless when he left Pakistan during partition, but became a millionaire manufacturing tires under the name Super Tyres.
Kalpana wasn't the first person in the family to fall in love with the idea of flying. Her brother Sanjay also was enamored of airplanes, according to an article in the Indian newsmagazine the Week. He wanted to be a commercial pilot, but a bad medical report ended that dream. One by one, his drawings and pictures of airplanes were peeled from the living room walls.
By that time, the images were hard-wired in his little sister's brain. She was a wiry kid with massive stores of energy. Her mother called her a tomboy. "She was different," Sanjay told the Week. "She used to cut her own hair, never wore ironed clothes, learnt karate."
She would hop on her bike and pedal furiously along the runway of a nearby military school, racing slow-moving yellow planes as they took off and landed. It was hopeless, but she learned important lessons about speed and lift, and eventually became one of the top five students at the Tagore Bal Niketan Senior Secondary School in the early 1970s.
"Once she prepared a project on environment in which she made huge, colorful charts and models depicting the sky and stars," said Vimala Raheja, the school's principal. "Traces of her interest in space may perhaps be found in this streak."
She was the only girl in her class who was selected to attend Punjab Engineering College. When a principal there told her she'd be better off in the mechanical department because of the dangers of aeronautics, Chawla's reply was decisive. "I will stay if you are giving me admission in aeronautics; otherwise, I will go home," she said.
In 1982, she left India to attend college in the United States. At the University of Texas at Arlington, the quiet girl who sat in the back of her aeronautics engineering classes wallpapered her dorm room with pictures of the space shuttle.
That year, she met flight instructor Jean-Pierre Harrison, who encouraged her to follow her dreams and to fly. A year later, they were married. The year after that, she received a master's degree.
"She just didn't speak up very much in class," said Don Seath, a professor of aerospace engineering who taught her. "She was very shy. But she did a very good job, and was a very good student."
Chawla was a stranger in a strange land. She was a practicing Hindu and a strict vegetarian in a place where devout Christians devoured meat. Her English was perfect, but heavily accented by Punjabi. Her speaking voice was high-pitched, adding to her girlish impression.
She tried to let her work do the talking. Her thesis focused on the aerodynamics of wings and bodies, but Seath said the term paper, like Chawla, did not stand out at the time. "She looked similar to most of the other Indian students we have had. Very, very nice looking girl."
Inevitably, those who remember Chawla talk about her good looks, especially her smile. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Chawla received her doctorate, Culp, a professor of aerospace engineering science, can see her still.
"I can picture her," he said. "I see someone I think of as a teenager, with a smile of perfect teeth that are bright white with dark skin. She was always smiling. She had this positive personality. Everything was exciting to her. She was a pilot, and she was usually out flying. That is what she lived for."
Chawla blossomed after leaving the University of Texas, and Culp developed a tight bond with her. She was even closer to another faculty adviser, C.Y. Chow, now retired. Chow, an exacting engineering professor, was so impressed by his student's work ethic and optimistic personality that he called her "the daughter I never had."
After receiving a doctorate in 1988, Chawla moved with Harrison to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she worked at NASA's Ames Research Center and then at Overset Methods Inc., a flight concept company. In 1994, on a lark, she joined a pool of 2,000 astronaut candidates. Several times a year, she returned to Boulder to work and have lunch with her former faculty advisers. "We never heard her say she wanted to be an astronaut," Culp recalled. "After she was selected, she said that even after she applied, she never felt she would be selected."
But there she was, at 5 feet, 90 pounds, training to rocket into outer space. She lived near the NASA Space Center in Taylor Lake Village, a section of Seabrook, a coastal Houston suburb. She underwent underwater training; countless medical tests, including those for physical stamina; and scientific tests. It often kept her away from home, where the yard is overgrown with shrubs that aren't trimmed, flowers that wilted and a spiky lawn that is shamed by the manicured turf of its neighbors.
Chawla was more concerned with fitting into a spacesuit than with her neighbors. She wanted to work in the space station, but the woman who could not reach the pedals of the Pitts S2-B airplane was again too small.
The white spacesuit that astronauts were required to wear when transferring from the shuttle to the station didn't fit. There are two sizes, large and medium -- no petites. Chawla was relegated to internal duties inside the shuttle.
When she blasted into space, Chawla once said, the force of liftoff felt like three people crouching on her chest. Then suddenly, she weighed nothing at all. Space is often where she found the lighter side of her personality, fellow astronaut Scott recalled.
On their flight aboard Columbia, Scott said, Chawla invented games constantly. She held competitions to see who could somersault, falling face first, in the most revolutions without banging their head against any part of the spaceship.
"She kept something going all the time, to make it fun," Scott said.
With her second mission approaching, Chawla prepared furiously. She wanted to avoid the mistakes that marred her first flight, and she wanted to honor everyone who taught her by carrying flags, patches and other mementos to hand out upon her return.
Acuff, the flight instructor in California, was watching the reentry on television, as were Culp, the professor in Colorado, and Rihn, the championship pilot in Texas. They were all eager to see Chawla again. But like everyone else, they watched the shuttle streak across the atmosphere in a horrifying skid.
"It was a blow type of feeling, to the stomach," Culp said. "There's nothing you can do. You just sit there and watch." And then he recalled the look of the shuttle as Chawla might have, in a positive sense, how it resembled a falling star, streaking across the bright morning sky.