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India Mourns One Of Its Own

Grieving relatives and friends laid garlands of marigolds across a picture of Columbia astronaut Kalpana Chawla Sunday in accordance with Hindu tradition, remembering the first Indian-born woman in space.

Mourners prayed around a small shrine to Chawla set up in the room where she was born in this village 80 miles north of New Delhi. The photograph showed her in her bright orange space suit.

"It is a terrible shock, a terrible shock," said Vijay Setia, a relative who lives in the house in Karnal, where Chawla spent much of her childhood. "Yesterday, the mood was different everybody was enjoying themselves, and then we heard the news."

Children and the elderly gathered at the Tagore Bal Niketan school in Karnal, which Chawla attended, while Indian newspapers honored the Columbia in their editions Sunday.

"Kalpana's Columbia breaks up," said a headline on The Sunday Express newspaper. The Pioneer newspaper's front page read, "Space devours a dream."

Most Indians learned about the tragedy from morning newspapers. It was late in the evening on Saturday when TV stations broke the news.

Among the mourners at Chawla's hometown were students who had come here on Saturday to celebrate the expected landing of Columbia with an evening of song and dance.

"Everybody feels proud that Karnal's daughter brought fame to this country," Setia said.

Chawla was a new kind of heroine in India, which has launched satellites for years and is preparing for a moon orbit this decade.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee expressed condolences for the death of the seven astronauts aboard the shuttle in a message to President Bush.

Chawla's parents, two sisters and sister-in-law were in the United States waiting for her return, a family friend, Arun Sharma, said outside her brother's home in New Delhi.

They had missed meeting Chawla before she set out on her space odyssey last month because they reached NASA late, said Shashi Dubey, another family friend.

Her brother, Sanjay, was alone at his New Delhi home when his wife told him about the loss of communication with the space shuttle.

"I immediately switched on TV news and could make out that a terrible thing has happened," Sanjay Chawla said.

"Whenever someone in your family gets involved in this kind of project, you have to be prepared inside for this kind of news. If your child is in the army or the air force, you have to be prepared for all this," he said.

"What can anyone say except that we are aghast at the terrible tragedy," said V. Sundararamaiah, scientific secretary at the Indian Space Research Organization.

Chawla emigrated to the United States in the 1980s and became a U.S. citizen. There, she earned an advanced degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Texas and a doctorate from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the late 1980s.

She became an astronaut in 1994 and made her first space flight in 1997. On that mission, she was blamed for mistakes that sent a science satellite tumbling out of control. Other astronauts went on a space walk to capture it, and NASA later acknowledged that the instructions to the crew may not have been clear.

On the 1997 flight, Chawla said that as the shuttle repeatedly passed over India, especially New Delhi, she pointed it out to the other crew members and said, "I lived near there."

By Tim Sullivan

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