To Ashna Sudhakar, Kalpana Chawla is like a lodestar in a trail strewn with stardust. She has worked meticulously towards each milestone on that trail, inching her way forward from the laid-back village of Koduvally in Kozhikode to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre (GSFC). The exhilarated visiting scholar who is on a three-month research training program at GSFC feels she is at an important juncture – where her dream trail converges with the memories of her guiding spirit.
As a little girl, Ashna would wave at the airplanes that flew across the sky above her home in Koduvally. Once, former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam visited her school – Pannur Government HSS. His speech left a deep impression on her. The Missile Man who urged youngsters to soar high on wings of fire instilled in Ashna a faith in the power of dreams. The episode has an interesting side. Later, while in college, she went off on a secret mission to see the birthplace of Kalam in Rameswaram. Ask her why she went alone without telling anyone at home and she quips that’s just how dream journeys are made.
The news of Columbia Space Shuttle disaster reached Ashna on a regular school day. The death of Kalpana Chawla, the Indian-born astronaut killed in the crash, had made it a personal tragedy for every Indian and Ashna was no different. Her most treasured possession became a picture of Chawla, which she carried everywhere, the bright eyes and infectious smile urging her to aim for the stars. So smitten she was by the Indian space girl that friends started referring to Ashna as their ‘Space Girl’. The story of Chawla’s journey from Haryana to become the first Indian-origin woman on a space mission gave the schoolgirl in Koduvally her wings of fire.
Having made up her mind on learning more about space, she left no stone unturned. “While I was pursuing MSc in Physics, I applied for an internship at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC); however, I was rejected since they weren't entertaining MSc students,” writes Ashna in her blog. “I didn't lose hope and got in touch with the head of their Human Resource Development Division (HRDD) and recited my interest in working there.”
She was eventually allowed to do her internship at VSSC during which she worked on gravity waves and ionospheric physics. Ashna went on to do her MPhil at the Solar Physics Observatory, Kodaikanal and the internship of her Ph.D. program at the Aryabhatta Research Centre, Nainital.
Armed with the necessary qualifications, she looked out for opportunities to study further at premier institutions. Things took off when she attended a 15-day camp at the NASA Space School in Maharashtra.
“I interacted with scientists from NASA and attended their lectures. I also came to know about SCOSTEP Visiting Scholar (SVS) Program under which young scientists and graduate students are trained in solar-terrestrial physics laboratories and institutions for a period of one to three months," she writes in the blog about the beginning of her journey to NASA.
"My research work was concentrated on the Geo-effectiveness of the energetic phenomena of the sun. So, I chose to work at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, which was one of the ten host institutions that function under the mentioned program," she says.
She came back from the camp with her heart set on one thing. She made a diary entry that day – ‘If dreams have the power to come true, I will be in a place that holds the memories of Kalpana Chawla.’
After dispatching her application for an internship to the Heliophysics Science Division of GSFC, Ashna set to work preparing an impressive research proposal; the response could be positive and she wanted to be ready. A month later, she was informed that she could submit the proposal in 10 days’ time. In spite of working on it for weeks, Ashna says she rushed in the document just 10 minutes before the deadline.
It took two long months for the reply to come. The ‘yes’ she read in the message was translated in her brain to these words of Kalpana Chawla – “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get onto it, and the perseverance to follow it. Wishing you a great journey.”
The hurdles were not over yet. The US Embassy in Chennai rejected her visa application saying that the MG University graduate’s NASA internship did not sound convincing. She was not ready to give up though. She filed a fresh application and prepared better to face the US Consulate’s interview. She cleared it the second time.
“The happiness felt by a girl hailing from a small village who had watched airplanes from the terrace of her house on taking a 17-hour flight and working in NASA was beyond words. The whole village celebrated my selection and my parents were extremely proud,” she says, adding that all she could do was weep for joy.
At NASA, Ashna says she’s “constantly inspired by scientists who work passionately.” She is working on solar radio burst and submits a weekly research report to her supervisor. A poster related to her research work that she presented at the 2017 UN/US workshop on International Space Weather Initiative (ISWI2017) at Boston College was much applauded.
Trying to make the most of her time, she explores the organization in her free time, visiting research departments and observatories. She visited MIT and Harvard University among other places. While attending a workshop at GSFC, she stumbled into Room No. 28 which displays “the same globe which Shahrukh Khan stood beside in the movie Swades,” writes an excited Ashna in her blog. “I also got lucky and witnessed the Great American Eclipse! My journey at NASA has been truly inspiring and memorable,” she says.
Her Facebook posts are gentle reminders to friends and family that she sees her NASA stint as a way to make more valuable contributions to her own society, reiterating that she has no intention to stay back and mint money. The young scientist has already drawn up a plan to get more talents back home on the trail of stars – “I am planning to do a space physics outreach program at my school to share my experience with little girls who dream of becoming the next Kalpana Chawla.” She dedicates this dream project to her parents who took pride in giving all they had to get their two girls educated. After all, they let the Space Girl in Koduvally chase her dreams.