ONCE A.P.J. Abdul Kalam sets his mind on a project, he gets it done. Be it his former colleagues in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) or the Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC), it is this trait of Kalam that they find most striking. "Kalam was always focussed on his goal" is the assessment of D. Narayana Moorthi, Director, Launch Vehicles Programme, ISRO, Bangalore. Narayana Moorthi was part of the core team of the SLV-3 (Satellite Launch Vehicle) project, which Kalam led. The successful launch of SLV-3 on July 18, 1980 from Sriharikota muscled India into the exclusive space club, which had only the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and China as members.
R.V. Perumal, Associate Director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram, summed up Kalam's persona thus: "Once he takes up a project, he will go for it" with single-minded commitment.
Kalam loved the challenges aeronautics offered and he found in it his metier. "It was a joy to study the structure of an aircraft," he reminisced with passion about his student days in aeronautics in the Madras Institute of Technology, Chromepet, Chennai.
Other traits of his that have struck his colleagues are that he is a great motivator of men and is a team-builder. "He inspires by example. He treats success and failure with equal poise," said Narayana Moorthi.
ISRO Chairman Dr. K. Kasturirangan calls Kalam "a techno-manager, an inspiring leader" who made a deep impression on every one of his team-mates. In an article, "Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as I Know", Kasturirangan talks about how Kalam made the SLV-3 flight a success. The project needed coordination between several expert groups at the VSSC and other ISRO centres and industries that had to begin to build from scratch highly demanding hardware. There were also import restrictions and tight time-schedules. Kasturirangan said: "It was a difficult and a highly demanding job which only Kalam, a bachelor, staying in his workplace most of the time and for short rests in his hotel room in Thiruvananthapuram, could execute. He had a child-like enthusiasm and was therefore a great inventor. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty, to use a hammer as a brush, to break something just to see how it works, and to start with the impossible, which is where others usually stop."
In the SLV-3 project and later in the ambitious Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), Kalam and his team members had to grapple with complex new technologies. They also had to overcome the technology denial regimes devised by the West. Overcoming these odds and building Agni, Prithvi, Trishul, Akash and Nag with indigenous technology was no easy job. Kalam did it, his former colleagues said, because he was a team-builder who inspired by example.
According to Dr. A. Sivathanu Pillai, Chief Controller, Research and Development, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), "Kalam's strength is that he thinks ahead. He is a great person and a leader." Sivathanu Pillai was not only part of Kalam's SLV-3 core team but worked with him in the IGMDP. "When Kalam executes a mission, he would ask us about what can possibly go wrong. He would identify the problem areas, plan for various contingencies and take action," he said.
In the assessment of both Narayana Moorthi and Sivathanu Pillai, Kalam's forte was identifying the strengths of his team members and building on them. "He created many leaders, using their strengths," Sivathanu Pillai said.
In Perumal's view, Kalam's open approach to problems has enabled him to get the best solutions. "He will talk to anybody required irrespective of his rank. If a mechanic has a solution, he would directly talk to him. That way, he was totally open. He had no airs."
A glimpse of the undivided attention Kalam would pay to the work on hand was available when this correspondent first met him on July 7, 1980 at Sriharikota preparatory to the SLV-3 launch. Standing in the assembly house where the four stages of SLV-3 were integrated horizontally, Kalam was looking intently at a motor casing.
The previous SLV-3 flight in 1979 had failed because of a leak of nitric acid in the solenoid valve in the rocket. So the young SLV-3 team led by Kalam was bent on making a success of the next flight. Sivathanu Pillai recalled how it was done. "We did simulations to identify the root cause of the problem, and conducted a number of reliability tests and made the system rugged." The flight was a success. But Kalam kept a low-profile.
In 1982, Kalam left ISRO, where he worked for 20 years, to join the DRDL, Hyderabad. It was here that he conceived the IGMDP, which included five types of missiles with Agni as the centrepiece. This demanded the development of some critical technologies, such as re-entry technology for intermediate/long-range ballistic missiles. Y.S. Rajan, Executive Director, TIFAC, said: "He could see that missiles would become part of the defence and security system. Even when he was in ISRO, his mind was on some of these... I also encouraged him to go for the missile programme."
Kalam and Rajan, who co-authored the book India 2020 : A Vision for the New Millennium (1996), worked together in ISRO and in TIFAC. Later, as Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, Kalam was also chairman, governing council, TIFAC.
Kalam's vision of making India strong came to the fore especially when he headed the IGMDP. His two favourite observations were "Strength respects strength" and "Low aim is a crime." When this correspondent met him after a Prithvi flight from Sriharikota, he said: "We should make India strong and beat the technology regimes aimed at us." He would always say, "...In the present unipolar world, only strength matters. Technology enables us to build that strength."
Rajan said Kalam was a truly happy man when Technology Vision: 2020, a two-year exercise, was completed in 1996, and 25 documents were released to the nation on August 2, 1996 by the then Prime Minister, H.D. Deve Gowda. They are a set of reports prepared by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) on how to develop technology in key sectors of the country. Rajan quoted Kalam as saying that day: "I am as much happy today as I was when the SLV-3 flight in 1980 became a success and put India in space. This Technology Vision: 2020 document will enable India to become a developed country."
In the past few years, Kalam was obsessed with "igniting" the minds of youth to "dream". In a speech at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station on February 10, 2001, Kalam said: "You have to ignite the minds of 100 million people... You should allow your children to dream. For without dreams, there are no thoughts, and without thoughts, there is no action." He pointed out how Homi Bhabha's dream had come true with 14 nuclear power stations in the country. He said: "Science and technology worked together to achieve this."
He recalled how Vikram Sarabhai and M.G.K. Menon had interviewed him in 1962 for the post of a rocket engineer in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The Indian National Committee for Space Research came under the DAE at that time. Kalam said: "It was a fantastic interview. It was a great experience for me. They said they had selected me. My joy knew no bounds." He was assigned to the engineering group at Trombay. "Thumba had not been started then," he said.
Kasturirangan said he was delighted that Kalam was all set to cap his "eventful career" by becoming the first citizen of the country. Even after Kalam had left ISRO in 1982, the association between Kasturirangan and Kalam continued and it strengthened once Kasturirangan became ISRO Chairman. In ISRO, Kalam created several new, critical technologies such as the reinforced plastic fibre, which was used in heat-shields surrounding the satellite and in motor casings. Kalam was deeply involved in the sounding rocket project as well.
According to Kasturirangan, Kalam has an air of informality about him. But he pursued technical issues with tremendous rigour. He kept in touch with ISRO even after he had left it and attended ISRO launches. Kalam would arrive at Sriharikota around 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., drive straight to the Mission Control Centre, talk to the launch vehicle team, give them suggestions and clarify their doubts. "He never missed a (launch) programme of ISRO," Kasturirangan said.