74th St. renamed to honor Indian-American astronaut

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Chawla, 41, and six others died Feb. 1, 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, just a quarter of an hour before the 16-day mission, her second in space, was scheduled to come to an end.

Now after Sunday's emotive renaming of 74th Street in Jackson Heights, the heart of the borough's South Asian community, local community leader Shiv Dass hopes successive waves of immigrants will also remember Chawla and what she meant for the American Dream.

A stretch of the road between 37th and Roosevelt avenues - populated with Indian eateries, importers and jewelry stores - now bears her name: "Kalpana Chawla Way."

"There is a sign now," said Dass, who owns a jewelry store on Kalpana Chawla Way and is president of the Jackson Heights Merchants' Association. "It is not a temporary sign and when (in) 10, 20 or 50 years other immigrants come, they will say, 'Oh, America is great'" because it honors "even the recent immigrant who has made some contribution to the community."

Dass called Chawla, a Hindu born in Karnal, India who lived in Texas, "the pride" of the South Asian community.

"The Indian community took great pride when she went into space and mourned when she died - not just here but in India," said Dass, who never met Chawla personally.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, however, in a gaffe of galactic proportions, told the crowd of hundreds who assembled for the renaming ceremony that he had met Chawla during an India Day celebration in Manhattan during the summer of 2003, Dass said.

In fact, Dass said, Chawla had never even been to the area. Bloomberg must have been talking about another Indian-American astronaut, Sunita Lynn Williams, Dass said.

But the man who moved to the United States from India in 1966 was also understanding of the mayor's bumble.

"Foreign names are very difficult to remember," said Dass, who pointed out, "It was so nice of the mayor to come and join the community."

Other politicians, including City Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights), who Dass said was instrumental in gaining approval for the street sign, state Sen. John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights) and U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) also attended the ceremony.

Dass said organizers asked Chawla's husband to attend but he was too tired, having recently returned to the United States from Bangalore, India, where many of Chawla's personal effects were on display as part of a special commemoration.

To mark the occasion of the street renaming, the Jackson Heights Merchants' Association, which began working on the street renaming immediately after the Columbia disaster, printed professionally designed booklets emblazoned with Chawla's image.

Dass described Chawla as an inspiration to everyone, particularly in light of the dangers of space flight.

"It's a great risk," Dass said. "In spite of this, she went."

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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