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Memories: Of Sunita Williams and Kalpana Chawla September 8, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 1:30 am
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              In good company: With Sunita Williams and her father Deepak Pandya in New York

Wednesday’s arduous 6 hour-28 minute spacewalk by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, where she ingenuously used a tooth brush to fix a pesky bolt on the International Space Station, obviously was not just another “walk” for the 47-year old Indian American.  It was a record-setting milestone that added up to 44 hours and 2 minutes in a total of six spacewalks, making her a woman astronaut with the maximum number of spacewalks.

Williams’ latest space odyssey which she has undertaken along with co-astronaut Akihiko Hoshide to conduct repairs on the International Space Station’s main power unit switching mechanism, is expectedly a proud moment not just for her, for NASA, for her family, but for Indians in India and Indian origin people across the world. Her achievements are almost invariably headline news in India. In fact, when she returned from her last record-setting spacewalk in 2007, she was accorded a rousing welcome in India, and more so in Gujarat her native land.

So, is it just me or is it true that Williams, although an American citizen, at best gets into space/NASA related news in mainstream American media and never into the big headlines?

No, please, I am not playing a discordant note in this celebratory chorus, but I am reminded of a personal anecdote which makes me cynical of American media’s deceptively condescending attitude towards non-Caucasian naturalized citizens, however commendable their achievements.

I would love to be corrected on that, but first let me narrate my story:

It was in 2004. I was covering a ceremony to rename a street in New York’s Jackson Heights (Little India) after NASA astronaut Kalpana Chawla. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was there to unveil the road name, and in his speech to the many gathered Indian Americans he said that at the Indian Independence Day Parade in Manhattan that year he had marched along with Kalpana Chawla for nearly 30 blocks and along the way, had a memorable chat with her.

That story, which received loud applause from the crowd, didn’t seem right to me. So later, at an impromptu press conference at the same venue, where a number of mainstream media reporters were in attendance, I raised my hand and told the Mayor that I wanted to correct him on something he said in his speech. When he asked me go ahead, I told him: You mentioned that you walked with Kalpana Chawla in the India Day Parade. But that’s not possible because Kalpana Chawla died in 2002 (In the space shuttle Columbia disaster). It is true that you walked with an Indian American NASA astronaut, but it was not Kalpana Chawla, it was Sunita Williams!

If the Mayor was embarrassed by his blatant mistake, he did not show it, but simply thanked me and quickly moved on to the next question.

When the press conference was over, the minute the Mayor left, all the American media reporters surrounded me and asked me what that was all about. So I explained in detail how the Mayor had mistaken one Indian American astronaut for the other. To me it was a grave mistake, actually a lack of respect shown on part of the Mayor towards the very person (Kalpana Chawla) in whose honor the event was held. The Mayor did not even apologize for not having done his homework right.

The next day, some of the newspapers, including the New York Times carried the story about the Mayor’s ‘mistake’ and my correction. (Please see link)

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/12/nyregion/mayor-s-sentiments-were-right-if-the-astronaut-wasn-t.html

Ironically though none of these newspapers mentioned the event in Kalpana Chawla’s honor where all this happened.

Never mind the rest of the American media, I can say this for myself for sure – that for the India Day Parade in 2008 (the year following Sunita Williams’ first record-setting spacewalk at the International Space Station) I had the opportunity of meeting her at a press conference when she came down to New York to march in the parade again. I have the picture to prove it!

She was inspiring, not just for her tall achievements that dwarf you, but more for her utter humility that elevates you.

Thank you, Sunita, for the brief but unforgettable encounter.

                                                                                                                                                                                  Srirekha Chakravarty

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One Response to “Memories: Of Sunita Williams and Kalpana Chawla”

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