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University of Colorado Relives Shuttle Tragedy

University of Colorado Relives Shuttle Tragedy


As the University of Colorado at Boulder mourned the death of graduate Dr. Kalpana Chawla on the space shuttle Columbia earlier this month, the university community could not help but remember another esteemed alumnus, Ellison Onizuka, who died in the Challenger explosion in January 1986.

“It’s difficult to express the sense of sadness and disbelief we all feel today for the loss of Dr. Chawla, one of our distinguished astronaut-alumni of the aerospace engineering program. Along with Ellison Onizuka, who died on the Challenger in 1986, CU-Boulder now has lost two of its shining stars to shuttle disasters,” said Dr. Phil DiStefano, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, in a statement.

Chawla, 41, was born in Karnal, India, and received an aeronautical engineering degree from Punjab Engineering College in 1982. Chawla immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, earning a master’s from the University of Texas in 1984 and a doctorate from CU-Boulder in 1988. She became an astronaut in 1994 and logged 376 hours in space during her first shuttle flight in 1997.

Chawla also held a flight instructor’s license with airplane and glider ratings. In her spare time, she flew aerobatics airplanes.

C.Y. Chow, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at CU, says Chawla was a brilliant and prolific student. Chow worked with Chawla on her thesis.

“She was very active outside the classroom, always in the sky,” he says. “She balanced hard work and research with her interest in flying.”

On the Columbia, Chawla was involved in experiments on plant growth and crystal structure, and two Colorado projects. One project from CU studied the strength and stiffness of wet sand that was compressed between metal plates, in the hopes of eventually building habitats in space. The other was a Colorado School of Mines project on fire suppression that used water mist to quench flames.

Onizuka earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Colorado. He was chosen for the astronaut program in 1978 and made his first space shuttle flight aboard Discovery in 1985. During a ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of the Challenger, a professor remembered Onizuka as an “excellent” student.

“He was an extrovert and a natural leader in everything he did,” said Robert Culp, an aerospace engineering professor and former chair of the department. Culp served as Onizuka’s adviser and taught him orbital mechanics.

“The University of Colorado remains enormously proud of our tradition of graduating astronauts to serve our country in the United States Space Program,” says CU President Elizabeth Hoffman.

Payload Commander Michael Anderson was the only African American among the seven astronauts on Columbia.

Anderson, who had logged more than 200 hours in space, earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy from the University of Washington and a master’s of science degree in physics from Creighton University in 1990.

“With the rest of the nation and world, we at Creighton University are profoundly saddened by today’s tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia,” said the Rev. John P. Schlegel, president of Creighton, on the day of the tragedy.

Schlegel said Anderson was on campus to receive the Graduate School Alumni Merit Award after his 1998 shuttle mission and was planning a return visit this spring.

“Michael was an exceptional alumnus and a wonderful representative of Creighton,” Schlegel said. “He told us after his first shuttle flight that he was living out his boyhood dream by going into space. Michael Anderson was not only one of Creighton’s best, he was one of our nation’s best.”

The crew also included Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, a colonel in Israel’s air force; pilot William McCool, commander Rick Husband and mission specialists Laurel Clark and David Brown.

— By Robin V. Smiles and wire reports

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