Hundreds of Peninsula residents poured into the Hindu Temple and Community Center in Sunnyvale Sunday to pay tribute to Kalpana Chawla, a Peninsula resident and one of the astronauts aboard the Columbia Space Shuttle when it exploded Saturday.
Chawla, 41, had become an icon for Indians worldwide after her first space mission in 1994, which earned her the distinction of being the first Indian-born person in space. The former Los Altos researcher was returning from her second space mission when the craft exploded over Texas, killing all seven astronauts on board.
"She was a daughter of India. She was representing all the Indian women," said Naranji Patel, president of the Hindu Temple and Community Center. "(The crew) was not only representing the United States, but also representing different parts of the world."
The tragedy drew 600 mourners to the temple from "all walks of life" - Americans, Russians, Israelis and Indians, he added.
Chawla regularly worshipped at the Sunnyvale temple during the time she worked as a researcher in Mountain View and Los Altos from 1989 to 1993.
Chawla enjoyed exploring both on the ground and in space. Flying aerobatics and tail-wheel airplanes and hiking were her favorite hobbies, according to her resume.
Chawla was an aerospace engineer and an FAA Certified flight instructor. She and her husband, Jean-Pierre Harrison, were flight instructors at West Valley Flying Club in Palo Alto.
She earned her bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College in her native Country, India; her master's from the University of Texas; and Ph.D. from the University of Colorado.
Chawla moved to the Bay Area in 1988 to work as a researcher for NASA Ames Research Center, where she studied powered-lift computational fluid dynamics.
Chawla's work brought her to Los Altos in 1993, where she formed a research team at Overset Methods Inc. As vice president of the Los Altos firm, she was responsible for developing techniques to make aircraft flying more efficient.
She left the company a year later after NASA chose her from among nearly 3,000 candidates to train at the Johnson Space Center for a shuttle flight to study how a weightless environment affected various physical processes. She traveled 6.5 million miles in 252 orbits of the Earth during the 376 hour mission in space.
Chawla was responsible for maneuvering the Columbia for various experiments during this month's mission.
She is survived by her husband; parents, two brothers and two sisters who live in South Delhi.
The Hindu Temple has created two condolence books. They plan to send one to the Israel Prime Minister and the other to NASA. Community members may sign the books this week at the temple, 420 Persian Drive, Sunnyvale.