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Space Shuttle Columbia

Woman who lived space dream

By CNN's Joe Havely

Kalpana Chawla
Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian-born woman in space.

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CNN's Daryn Kagan has a look at an unlikely astronaut: mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, a woman who grew up in India drawing airplanes and always dreamed of flying.
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(CNN) -- India is mourning the loss of astronaut Kalpana Chawla, one of seven astronauts killed aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

Chawla, who was born in the small town of Karnal in northern India in 1961, was the most experienced astronaut on shuttle mission STS-107 and has been lauded as a heroine in her home country.

Prayers have been said in her hometown as friends and family learned of the accident and her death on Saturday evening local time. (Full story)

An American citizen, Chawla was the first Indian-born woman to travel into space a place she had dreamed of visiting since her early childhood.

Her first mission was also aboard shuttle Columbia, on November 19, 1997, when she worked as a mission specialist studying the effects of microgravity as well as operating the spacecraft's giant robotic arm.

Her role aboard STS-107 was as a mission specialist and flight engineer.

Tributes in the Indian media have focused on her brilliance as a scientist, aeronautical engineer and outstanding pilot.

"Chawla showed an interest in flying and space from her earlier years," The Times of India said in its tribute.

"Her school projects and papers were all about the stars, planets, and outer space," the newspaper said.

Almost all reports described her achievements as "doing her country proud."

She first went to university in India's Punjab state, studying aeronautical engineering, before then completing a Masters degree at the University of Texas and earning a doctorate from the University of Colorado in 1984.

She was recruited into NASA's astronaut training program 10 years later.

Two other astronauts who died aboard Columbia Saturday were also from her NASA graduation class -- Shuttle Commander Rick D. Husband and Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson.

India has its own space program and earlier this year Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said his country should work towards the goal of sending a manned mission to moon.

To date India's space effort has focused on unmanned satellite launches, looking to gain a foothold in the lucrative satellite launch market.

The Indian government recently hosted a conference celebrating the achievements of the many Indian who have achieved success overseas in business, the arts and in science.

A list issued at the time of the most celebrated Indian-born high achievers featured Chawla's name at the top.

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