Kalpana Chawla joined the NASA astronaut corps in March 1995 and was selected for her first flight in 1998. She spoke the following words while travelling in the weightlessness of space, "You are just your intelligence". She had traveled 10.4 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 person of Indian origin to fly in space, following cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma who flew in 1984 in a Soviet spacecraft. On her first mission Chawla travelled 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, Kalpana was assigned to technical positions in the astronaut office, her performance in which was recognized with a special award from her peers.
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.