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15 Years Since Columbia Disaster UT Arlington Remembers Kalpana Chawla: One Of Their Own

ARLINGTON, Texas (CBS11) - Fifteen years ago today, the space shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas. All seven astronauts on board were killed, including one with ties to North Texas.

Kalpana Chawla was born in India; but, earned her Master's Degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Kalpana Chawla
Kalpana Chawla - Columbia astronaut who graduated from UT Arlington (UTA)

Professor Don Wilson was a teacher and mentor.

"Really sad," says Wilson, who is also the Associate Chair of the university's Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Department. "Such a really nice person... pleasant to be around, very motivated; but, very friendly."

Wilson says he had been invited to watch Chawla's first launch aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia and it was a very proud moment. When a stomach bug kept him grounded during Columbia's final trip, he thought he'd catch it all on TV.

"I saw it fly over, heard the boom," says Wilson. "At the time, [I] just thought it was a sonic boom."

But, he now knows that what he was hearing was the Columbia exploding upon reentry. The debris field was spread over hundreds of miles-- from south of Fort Worth to North East Texas.

"It was such a tragedy," says UTA Architecture student Nate Ward. "I remember I was in third grade when it happened."

Ward admits to nursing those little boy dreams of becoming an astronaut before settling on architecture. Today, he's in college and brought a bouquet of yellow flowers to the Kalpana Chawla memorial in the university's engineering building.

"I really wanted to remember her since she gave so much," says Ward. "She gave her life, the least we can do is remember her."

The memorial was erected in 2010 and includes pictures, a flight suit and a flag that flew over the Johnson Space Center during the memorial to the fallen crew. Chawla's husband, also a UTA graduate, donated the items to the memorial.

"Even seeing her name around campus in little spaces reminds me of the big things that she accomplished," says Ward. "Makes me proud of my future here at UTA."

"We've had a number of students-- particularly from India-- who come here to enter our graduate program," says Professor Wilson, "and the reason they give is 'this is where KC went to school', and that's why they're here."

Professor Wilson says Chawla loved to motivate young people to pursue science careers. So it is only fitting that 15 years after her death, her life is doing just that.

"Huge dreams," says Ward. "The sky is not the limit."

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