Chawla joined the NASA Astronaut Corps in March 1995 and was selected for her first flight in 1996. She spoke the following words while traveling in the weightlessness of space, "You are just your intelligence". She had traveled 10.67 million km, as many as 252 times around the Earth.
Her first space mission began on November 19, 1997 as part of the six-astronaut crew that flew the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87. Chawla was the first Indian-born woman and the second Indian person to fly in space, following cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma who flew in 1984 in a spacecraft. On her first mission, Chawla traveled over 10.4 million miles in 252 orbits of the earth, logging more than 372 hours in space. During STS-87, she was responsible for deploying the Spartan Satellite which malfunctioned, necessitating a spacewalk by Winston Scott and Takao Doi to capture the satellite. A five-month NASA investigation fully exonerated Chawla by identifying errors in software interfaces and the defined procedures of flight crew and ground control.
After the completion of STS-87 post-flight activities, Chawla was assigned to technical positions in the astronaut office to work on the space station, her performance in which was recognized with a special award from her peers.
Chawla in the space shuttle simulator
In 2000 she was selected for her second flight as part of the crew of STS-107. This mission was repeatedly delayed due to scheduling conflicts and technical problems such as the July 2002 discovery of cracks in the shuttle engine flow liners. On January 16, 2003, Chawla finally returned to space aboard Columbia on the ill-fated STS-107 mission. Chawla's responsibilities included the microgravity experiments, for which the crew conducted nearly 80 experiments studying earth and space science, advanced technology development, and astronaut health and safety.
The Kalpana Chawla ISU Scholarship fund was founded by alumni of the International Space University (ISU) in 2010 to support Indian student participation in international space education programs.
The Kalpana Chawla Memorial Scholarship program was instituted by the Indian Students Association (ISA) at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) in 2005 for meritorious graduate students.
The Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Recent Alumni Award at the University of Colorado, given since 1983, was renamed for Chawla.
In Karnal, Chawla's birthplace, at least 30,000 schoolchildren and citizens joined hands to make a 36.4-km-long human chain to support the demand for a Kalpana Chawla medical college in the city, which was announced by Health Minister of India C. P. Thakur and later promised by Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh. The Kalpana Chawla Medical College Nirman Committee, backed by volunteers and activists of various organizations, supported by students from 34 schools, swarmed the roads and formed a chain along the roads in Karnal city to demonstrate that they continued to revere Chawla as an outstanding astronaut.
Asteroid51826 Kalpanachawla, one of seven named after the Columbia's crew. On November 18, 2013, the foundation stone of the Kalpana Chawla Government Medical College was laid in her memory by the state government.
On February 5, 2003, India's prime minister announced that the meteorological series of satellites, MetSat, was to be renamed as "Kalpana". The first satellite of the series, "MetSat-1", launched by India on September 12, 2002, is now known as "Kalpana-1". "Kalpana-2" was expected to be launched by 2007.[dated info]
The Kalpana Chawla Award was instituted by the government of Karnataka in 2004 for young women scientists.
The girls' hostel at Punjab Engineering College is named after Chawla. In addition, an award of INR twenty-five thousand, a medal, and a certificate is instituted for the best student in the Aeronautical Engineering department.
One of Florida Institute of Technology's student apartment complexes, Columbia Village Suites, has halls named after each of the astronauts, including Chawla.
The NASA Mars Exploration Rover mission has named seven peaks in a chain of hills, named the Columbia Hills, after each of the seven astronauts lost in the Columbia shuttle disaster. One of them is Chawla Hill, named after Chawla.
Steve Morse from the band Deep Purple created the song "Contact Lost" in memory of the Columbia tragedy along with her interest in the band. The song can be found on the album Bananas.
^Salim Rizvi (11 December 2006). "Indo-US astronaut follows Kalpana's footsteps". BBC (New York). Retrieved 20 November 2012. "Almost four years after the death of the first Indian-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla in the Columbia space shuttle disaster, Nasa has sent another woman of Indian origin into space."