Mamta Patel Follows the Trail of Kalpana Chawla at NASA  
by: Francis C. Assisi (francis@indolink.com)

After completing an educational and training program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC), Mamta Patel says she is prepared to follow the trail blazed by scientist astronaut Dr. Kalpana Chawla.

“It is a dream unfolding before my very eyes”, says the effervescent 23- year-old aerospace engineer from Texas A&M University.

Patel is a “proud member of the Fightin´ Texas Aggie Class of 2002” and has just completed the JSC “Co-op” program which provides college students with work experience in areas related to space exploration - and usually runs in parallel with a degree in aeronautics and aerospace engineering.

A native of San Angelo, Texas, Patel began her program at NASA by working in the Training Division of the Mission Operations Directorate for the International Space Station where she became a certified trainer for astronauts. She explains: “ I trained the astronauts in operations of the Thermal Control System, which basically keeps things up on the Station at the temperatures they´re suppose to be at while getting rid of the extra heat that accumulates from payloads, computers, and other various equipment. I loved it! I mean how many 22 year olds get to claim that they trained astronauts?”


from L-R: Mamta Patel, Laura Campbell, Phil Strawser, and Binaifer Kadwa (all NASA co-ops) at the Mission Control Center for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and early Shuttle years.

Her enthusiasm is palpable as she wrote in the JSC “Coop” website: I´m one of those big dorks that knew she wanted to be an astronaut from the day I was born. And now, lil´ old me is helping send them to space! NASA showed its appreciation by honoring her with the Outstanding NASA Co-op Special Achievement Award 2001 followed by Outstanding NASA Co-op Flag Award 2002.

Of her obsession to become an astronaut, Mamta Patel told this reporter in a telephone interview: “I have always been interested in what exists beyond the horizons. I can still remember seeing my first eclipse, my first planet, trying to reach for the stars, using my first telescope, and daydreaming about preparing for liftoff in the United States Space Shuttle”. She confided that even before the Columbia tragedy people often asked her if she feared dying in space. “I always say that I could get in my car the next day and be in an accident, probably at a greater chance”. She says quite simply “my desire to explore outweighs any fear that I have”.

Exploring, questioning, learning, and being focused on her goal of becoming an astronaut also mean that she is energetic and full of the laughter of life. She is quick to credit her parents Jay and Laxmi Patel for what she is today. “They picked up and left their lives behind in India so their children could become educated and achieve successes never granted to them in India. I truly am indebted to these two incredible role models in my life”. She adds, “With the Columbia tragedy, I am even more inspired to become the next female Indian astronaut and bring India’s representation back to the astronaut corps at NASA”. Alongside a photograph she wrote: These are my biggest role models, the smartest people I have ever known, and the most unselfish people on this planet--My parents!

Patel believes that being an astronaut means representing all of mankind, an idea expressed by Kalpana Chawla after her first space expedition back in 1997. She remembers too the time when she met Dr Kalpana Chawla, then training for her mission aboard STS107. The astronaut took the time to express support and admiration for the goals of her American born sister.

After obtaining a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering Patel hopes to study the effects of living in space on the human body. “I am particularly interested in cardiovascular biomechanics and how the body’s cardiovascular system reacts to prolonged stay in space. Also, I am interested in advancing cancer research by using micro gravity to test new cancer technology” she said in an exclusive interview last Friday.

She recalled the pride she felt back in 1996 when Dr. Chawla became the first selected Indian female astronaut. “I was very proud that she pursued the area of aerospace engineering even if it was not widely accepted by other Indians. Many people in the Indian culture are very conservative and do not support a female pursuing higher education, and for that reason, I am proud that she achieved one of the most coveted positions in the world”.

There is a lighter side to Patel. “My friends here tease me because I always say that I "love" things. But I REALLY AND TRULY LOVE NASA! For me, it is a dream unfolding right in front of my very own eyes” she confides. She says that being a coop is “like being in college without the homework and stress and tests! There is never a dull moment in Coop Land! We plan trips to see a launch in Florida, ski in the Rockies, cruise the French Quarter in New Orleans, party at the BEACH, or just chill in good ol´ Houston, Texas!”

Patel has a history of activism. During her senior year at Central School in San Angelo, she spearheaded efforts to end student drug use, and was selected to spend a week, along with 1500 other students nationwide, in the Presidential Classroom Program in Washington meeting members of congress and other government leaders. Recently Patel participated in The Expanding Your Horizons in Math and Science Career Conference For Girls at the University of Houston, inspiring a still younger generation of potential NASA employees. She told those attending "I have been lucky enough to have a wonderful family and incredible teachers, but, I know that others are not so fortunate. So, any time that I can give back to young girls...I do it. It makes my day to see those girls smile."

It was during her third tour working in the Aeroscience and Computational Fluid Dynamics branch of NASA that she “checked out the engineering side of things” finding it “much more technically challenging than my previous experiences” and performed aerodynamic analysis for the X-38. During her fourth tour in the Guidance, Navigation, and Control branch of NASA she had “an incredibly challenging, yet cool, project where I simulated the X-38 control system” a project that will eventually allow NASA to make changes and run simulations for the control system on the PC before implementing those changes in the real simulator.

Patel has just completed her fifth and final tour in the Advanced Missions branch of NASA, where she was involved in planning the “mission trajectories to send a robotic mission to Mars to drill for ice”. The robotic Mars mission is scheduled for 2008 and Patel has also performed analysis of various landing sites for future scientific exploration of the Moon.