Kalpana Chawla, 41, emigrated to the United States from India in 1980s and became an astronaut in 1994.
At the time, she wanted to design aircraft - the space program was the furthest thing from her mind. "That would be too far-fetched," the engineer had said.
But "one thing led to another" and she was chosen as an astronaut after working at NASA's Ames Research Center and Overset Methods Inc. in Northern California.
Chawla was a heroine in India, which has launched satellites for years and is preparing for a moon orbit this decade. One Indian news agency even tracked Columbia's flight so it could tell readers the exact minute they could wave to the skies to hail their countrywoman.
"When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system," Chawla said in a 1998 interview with the newspaper India Today.
On her only other space flight, in 1997, she made mistakes that sent science satellite tumbling out of control. Other astronauts had to go on spacewalk to capture it.