A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

Technologist to the core

Print edition : August 21, 2015

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Photo: Harsha Padyana

Abdul Kalam with students of a government school at a seminar organised by the Centre for Women Studies, Bangalore University, in Bangalore on August 21, 2006. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

May 20, 1998: Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee flanked by Abdul Kalam and R. Chidambaram (right) at the underground nuclear explosion test site at Pokhran in Rajasthan. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (1931-2015), missile and rocket technologist, institution-builder and motivator of men, was relentless in his quest to build an India strong and self-reliant in science and technology.

IT was an achievement A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was always proud of—the successful launch of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) three-stage Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV)-3 on July 18, 1980, from Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. In fact, that event brought him recognition and became the launching pad of his spectacular career as a rocket engineer and missile technologist who put India on the world map as a space-faring nation and a missile power. Kalam received the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, in November 1997, played a key role in India’s nuclear tests at Pokhran, Rajasthan, in May 1998, and became the President of India in 2002. He had a natural affinity for aeroplanes, rockets and missiles. “It was a joy to study the structure of an aircraft,” he once told the alumni of the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT), Chromepet, Chennai, from where he graduated after a three-year diploma in aeronautical engineering.

Kalam’s life was a journey from a simple house on the island of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace, in New Delhi. He was the most popular President, establishing an extraordinary connect with the common people, youth and children. He ceaselessly exhorted them to dream and build a developed India and thus came to symbolise their aspirations.

He said: “Dream is not something that you see in your sleep, it is something that does not let you sleep.” When he asked a child in Hyderabad what her dream was, she replied, “Sir, I want to live in a developed country.” The child’s reply haunted him for several days. He always held that technology was the key to India becoming a developed country ( Frontline, December 26, 1997).

When news of his death in Shillong, Meghalaya, on July 27 while addressing the students of the Indian Institute of Management came, there were instant wall posters, hoardings, WhatsApp images and Facebook posts with his exhortations to the youth and his thoughts on life, and this continued until his funeral, which took place in Rameswaram on July 30. Kalam was a restless man who wore on his sleeve his relentless quest to build an India strong and self-reliant in science and technology. He was a nationalist, a patriot and a secularist.

Missile and rocket technologists who worked under Kalam call him a visionary, an institution-builder and a motivator of men.

Kalam attracted a fair share of criticism, too. His critics called him a mere manager of men and suggested that he played favourites. He was considered hawkish in military matters such as India’s development of strategic missiles with nuclear warheads and its nuclear tests in 1998. His biggest faux paus, however, was to advocate a two-party democracy. Barring the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), every other party, including the Left parties, lampooned him for the suggestion. He knew how to manufacture his image—he would often state that he wore a white dhoti (and not a checked lungi as is the custom among Tamil Muslims) on casual occasions, that he loved playing the veena, that he read the Bhagavad Gita and that he was a vegetarian. He was perceived as being close to the BJP, and it was no surprise that the Congress did not back him for a second term as President when it came to power.

SLV-3, which put the 38.5-kilogram Rohini satellite into a low-earth orbit, was an indigenous mission: both the launch vehicle and the satellite were developed in India. The event marked India’s entry into the exclusive space club. Until then only the United States, the former Soviet Union, France, Japan and China had the capability to build their own rockets and use them to put satellites into orbit. As its project director, Kalam was the architect of the mission’s success. It was actually the SLV-3’s second flight. Professor Satish Dhawan, then Chairman of the ISRO, said ground stations had successfully tracked the satellite. Vasant Gowariker, who was the Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thiruvananthapuram, called the mission “a fantastic success”. But Kalam kept a low profile, and merely told reporters that the satellite would remain active in orbit for 50 to 100 days and that it would be a month before a complete analysis of the data from the satellite was available. Kalam had reasons for striking a low profile on that day.

The first flight of the SLV-3 on August 10, 1979, had ended in failure when nitric acid rained from the solenoid valve in the rocket and the launch vehicle plunged into the sea along with its Rohini technology payload. Kalam was the project director of that flight as well. Before that mission’s launch, Kalam faced three personal tragedies—his parents and his brother-in-law had passed away. But he was able to put aside the grief “with the spiritual strength that my family gave me in the joint family system” and focus on corrective action for the relaunch of the vehicle in 1980 with the help of the “precision diagnosis of the failure” by M.R. Kurup, Chairman of the Failure Analysis Board, and G. Madhavan Nair.

There was no looking back for him after that. Kalam became the Director of the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), a missile-making facility of the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) in Hyderabad, in 1982 and became the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and the Director-General of the DRDO in 1992. He was a technocrat-President of India. He laid a strong, indigenous foundation for both the civilian rocket and military missile programmes of India. He took on embargoes and sanctions regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, specifically aimed at India in the aftermath of the country’s nuclear tests in May 1974 and May 1998. He formed consortiums of space and defence laboratories with academic institutions, public sector undertakings and private industry to develop products that were denied to India. These indigenously developed products included phase shifters, magnesium alloys, ram-rocket motors and servo-valves for missiles. He drove DRDL scientists to develop the critical re-entry technology and the composites required for India’s Agni missiles. DRDL scientists had anticipated the MTCR in 1983 itself. They identified some high-technology products such as carbon-carbon performs, focal plane array, millimetre-wave radar systems and C-band phase shifters, which were essential to India’s missile programme, and began working on them.

Integrated missile technology

When the Government of India asked Kalam to take over as the Director of the DRDL, the laboratory had only one missile programme under way at that time. It was Devil, a surface-to-surface missile. But the Devil programme was floundering and the Centre even thought of closing down the DRDL. The morale in the DRDL was low. The government wanted Kalam to galvanise the DRDL and put the country’s missile programme back on track. He was asked to prepare a blueprint to make India a missile nation. V.S. Arunachalam, then Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and DRDO Director-General, and Kalam met Defence Minister R. Venkataraman with a proposal to develop five missiles in a staggered manner and wanted a certain amount of money for the project.

In an article titled “In the service of the country”, published in Frontline dated December 26, 1997, Anand Parthasarathy, a former scientist who worked with Kalam at the DRDL, narrated what happened when Arunachalam and Kalam met Venkataraman: “‘Take it back!’ said Venkataraman who, though unfamiliar with the technical nitty-gritty, had an instinctive larger feel for the strategic issues. The Minister suggested that Kalam and Arunachalam recast the plan in such a way as to develop all five missile types under one programme.” In other words, Venkataraman wanted them to ask for a much bigger sum for developing the five missiles. Since Arunachalam and Kalam had no time to work out the budget, they asked for a bigger sum by “adding zeroes all over the place”.

Kalam was too happy to tell his colleagues, who were feeling dejected over the foreclosure of the Devil project, that they would now have to develop five missiles. Thus was born the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) at the DRDL in 1983. As Anand Parthasarathy says in his article, “He [Kalam] brought a whiff of informality to a laboratory that was used to an Army atmosphere. He refused to move into the bungalow allotted to the Director, preferring to stay in one of the eight suites in the Defence Labs Mess. The suite, with a small study and a tiny bedroom, was his home for the next decade.”

In fact, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Venkataraman, Arunachalam and Kalam formed a formidable team that wanted to build a self-reliant India in defence and several areas of science and technology.

The IGMDP first included four projects to develop the surface-to-surface missile Prithvi, the surface-to-air Akash, the surface-to-air Trishul and the anti-tank missile Nag. The Agni missile was not there in the original IGMDP. The short-range Prithvi was developed successfully. Kalam felt that Prithvi could not be converted into a long-range missile and that the DRDL should come up with a re-entry technology. As V.K. Saraswat, a missile technologist, who went on to become Scientific Adviser to Defence Minister and DRDO Director-General, said, “On Kalam’s insistence, a development project on re-entry technology was included in the IGMDP and he called it Agni.” Thus, the 1980s saw the indigenisation of technologies needed for Nag, the inertial navigation system of Prithvi, phased array radars, capability to handle multiple targets, Agni’s re-entry technology, including carbon composites for its nose-cone, the ram-rocket motor of Akash, and so on ( Frontline, February 13, 2009).

The missiles were developed and launched on schedule: Trishul in 1985, Prithvi in 1988, Agni in 1989 and the others in 1990. The first flight of Trishul was from Sriharikota in 1985.


What caught the attention of the world was the successful launch of the Agni-technology demonstrator (TD) missile on May 22, 1989. It was an intermediate range ballistic missile with a range of about 1,500 kilometres. It could carry a nuclear warhead. What stood out in the mission was that the re-entry technology of Agni-TD worked perfectly well. The nose-cone withstood a temperature of more than 3,000° Celsius when the missile seared through the atmosphere. Kalam, basking in the Agni success, truculently declared, “Strength respects strength; technology honours technology.” Later, in Hyderabad, when he was asked whether Agni would carry nuclear warheads, he sarcastically replied, “You can send a bouquet of flowers on Agni; it can also carry a packet of samosas.”

Kalam was also an institution-builder. He set up the Interim Test Range at Chandipur-on-sea, Odisha, for flight-testing missiles such as Prithvi, Trishul and Akash. For flight-testing Agni missiles, the Wheeler Island, about 40 km offshore from Chandipur-on-sea, was chosen. When there were doubts about setting up the station on the small island and the logistics of ferrying the missile stages to the island, Kalam insisted it could be done. Thus, a missile launching station was set up on Wheeler Island, with sophisticated instrumentation. The launch stations at Chandipur-on-sea and Wheeler Island were together called the Integrated Test Range.

Kalam then turned his attention to building the Research Centre, Imarat (RCI) in Hyderabad, about 10 km from the DRDL campus. The centre was inaugurated in 1988. Missile technologists call the RCI “a personal achievement of Kalam”. It is today a world-class laboratory in developing the avionics, navigation and guidance systems and seekers for missiles, ships, submarines, battle tanks, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and torpedoes. Kalam ensured that the barren land on which the RCI was built became fully wooded with hundreds of trees. Since the nearby village is called Imarat, he wanted people to remember it and named the centre Research Centre, Imarat.

Asked about the criticism that Kalam was a mere manager of men, Anand Parthasarathy said: “Out and out, Kalam was a technology man. I don’t agree with the view of some people that he was only a manager. He was first and foremost a brilliant engineer. He knew several areas of rocket/missile technology such as design, propulsion, navigation, guidance, solid propellants. He knew enough of every engineering discipline in missile technology that he could exercise absolute control over every project that he headed. People like me learnt project management from him. In the institutes of management, they do not teach you how to get the work done by your colleagues. We learnt project management with a human face from him. He created a new generation of technology leaders.”

Kalam faced criticism for brushing aside proposals for developing an Agni missile with a range of 700 km. It is not known why he did so.

He was the architect of the Indo-Russian collaboration in developing the world’s first supersonic cruise missile BrahMos, which is another success story. A. Sivathanu Pillai, who cut his teeth as a member of Kalam’s SLV-3 project and followed Kalam to the DRDO, was the driving force behind the development of BrahMos.

Kalam’s other “disciples” such as V.K. Saraswat and Avinash Chander, who went on to become Scientific Advisers to Defence Minister and DRDO Directors-General, have made India a missile nation with the Agni variants, Pirthvi-II, Dhanush, Akash, interceptors, K-15 and Nirbhay, all of which are success stories. The missile complex in Hyderabad, comprising the DRDL, the RCI and the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) and a cluster of DRDO laboratories, is something that any country can be proud of.

The synergy that Kalam forged with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Atomic Energy Commission Chairman R. Chidambaram propelled the Vajpayee government at the Centre to conduct five nuclear tests in May 1998. Kalam was DRDO Director-General then and the DRDO provided the logistics for conducting the nuclear tests.

Kalam was reportedly keen, along with Chidambaram, that India “should exercise its option” of conducting nuclear tests. In 1996, Congress Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao abandoned plans to conduct nuclear tests after the United States came to know about them. Kalam’s critics say that he was interested only in rockets, missiles and nuclear weapons and that he was not interested in projects that had society’s welfare at heart. People, who have known him for several decades, reject such criticism. They argue that he had taken up several societal missions such as the Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA), solar power, bio-toilets, cochlear implants, and the development of cheaper stents and callipers, which were spin-offs from DRDO-developed technologies. He showed a sharp interest in the development of medical technology. In a tribute, Saraswat said, “Kalam was a team leader, motivator of men, a visionary and an institution-builder. Just the other day, he was talking to me about a project to build two million homes, which would derive their electricity from solar power.”

Early life

The former President was born on October 15, 1931, at Rameswaram and had his school education, first at the Panchayat Elementary School on the island and then at Schwartz High School in Ramanathapuram town. He obtained a BSc (Physics) degree from St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchi, in 1954 and completed a three-year diploma course in Aeronautical Engineering from the MIT, Chromepet, Chennai, in 1960. He joined the Bangalore-based Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) of the DRDO as a scientist the same year. In 1969, he joined the ISRO.

Sivasubramania Iyer, Iyadurai Solomon, Reverend Father Ladislaus Chinnadurai, Isaac Vedamuthu and K.V.R. Pandalai, who were Kalam’s school and college teachers, were his heroes. In an interview to this reporter on the 25th anniversary of the successful launch of the SLV-3 and published in The Hindu on July 28, 2005, he said about his interest in aeronautics:

“It all started when I was a 10-year-old boy. I was studying in the fifth class at the Rameswaram Panchayat Elementary School. We had a teacher. His name was Sivasubramania Iyer. He used to teach geography, science and hygiene. One day, he was teaching us how birds flew. He drew a diagram on the board, depicting wings, the tail and the body structure along with the head. He explained how birds created the lift and flew. He also explained to us how birds changed direction while flying. Many of us did not understand it. I said I did not.

“Our teacher said he would take all of us to the seashore. That evening, the whole class was at the shore at Rameswaram. He showed how the seabirds flew, how the seagulls flew. He indicated to us what the birds did to flap their wings and what their tails did. He explained to us all those things. The way Sivasubramania Iyer explained, I understood it. But the important thing was that from that day he injected into me the dream of something to do with flight. I did not know flight science. But he definitely injected me how to dream, to have a dream, to fly high and secondly, to do something later with the science of flight…the seeding. That is how it started.”

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