Statement by Ambassador H.E. T.P. Sreenivasan of India, at the International Women's Day at the Vienna International Centre.- March 10, 2003
On the occasion of the International Women’s Day, it is appropriate for us to pay homage to the two female astronauts, Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark whose adventurous lives came to a tragic end in the Columbia Shuttle accident. Both of them, women of courage and imagination, will continue to inspire men and women around the world. I shall speak particularly about Kalpana as I had the privilege of knowing her.
For Kalpana Chawla, the whole universe was her native land, she once characterised herself as a citizen of the Milky Way. To pay her a tribute as a representative of the country of her birth may, therefore, be inappropriate. She was born in a small town in India, but, in her quest for knowledge, national frontiers presented no obstacles. What beckoned her to the United States was the boundless opportunities there to explore the unknown. Both India and the United States made Kalpana Chawla possible, but she is today the inheritance of the whole mankind. Her tragic death in universal space, and not on the soil of any country, as she once wished, symbolised her spirit. The shuttle that helped her and Laurel soar into space may have perished, but their journey will continue in the hearts and minds of adventurous people around the globe. It is in their name that I pay a tribute to two outstanding women on the occasion of the International Women’s Day.
Kalpana’s parents instinctively named her ‘Kalpana’, the Sanskrit word for imagination, dream, fantasy, something almost impossible to attain. She pursued her dream to fly, to explore the frontiers of science and she attained it by being chosen as an astronaut. I had the privilege of witnessing her first launch in 1997, as an invited representative of the Government of India. She told me then that it was the basic science education that she received in India that had set her imagination on fire. She acknowledged at one time that the pioneer of Indian aviation, JRD Tata, inspired her. She had absolute faith in science and believed that the backing of thousands of NASA scientists had made space journeys safer than, say, driving a car by a single individual. She must have also known that a minor error could prove disastrous. But that did not deter her from flying into space even a second time, as if to vindicate her faith and her fantasy.
India mattered to Kalpana, as we now know that she was in constant touch not only with her immediate family that was left behind in India, but also with her Tagore School in Karnal, named after India’s Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and her Engineering College in Punjab. Every year, she took two of the most brilliant children in her school to spend a summer at NASA, a quantum jump in knowledge for them. She had carried on her flight a banner depicting an Indian teacher blessing a young girl, in memory of one of her science teachers in India. Kalpana mattered to India even more, as was seen by the outpouring of grief at the loss of a brave daughter of India, the tributes paid to her by the Indian leaders and the Parliament and the recent naming of, among other things, a series of Indian satellites after her. Barely a month before her death, a popular Indian Weekly, ‘India Today’, had featured her on the cover as personifying the spectacular accomplishments of nearly twenty million Indians abroad. The title read, “The Global Indians, Doing Us Proud”. The tradition continues, as another Indian American woman gets ready to participate in future shuttle flights.
We believe in India that brave and great souls do not depart. They simply transform themselves into stars to enrich the shining galaxy, up above the world, like diamonds in the sky. I have no doubt that Kalpana and Laurel are up there, to inspire and encourage young people to aspire high and to reach the seemingly unattainable heights of achievement.