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           A MAN OF DESTINY                                              


Prof. K. A. V. Pandalai













here is a natural human tendency to appreciate and admire self-made individuals who rise from humble beginnings to great heights. A classical example is that of Abraham Lincoln, who went from a log cabin to the White House and became one of the greatest Presidents of America, remembered and respected all over the world, even today. 

          Another example is that of K. R. Narayanan, who was born in poverty in a small one-roomed thatched cottage in Kerala. However, thanks to his academic and professional qualifications and attainments as a scholar, statesman, diplomats and humanist, he was almost unanimously elected President of India. 

          Likewise, the whole of India and the world respects and admires Srinivasa Ramanujan. This utterly poor Indian, in a short life span of about 32 years, rose from the position of an ordinary clerk in the Port Trust at Madras to become on of the outstanding mathematicians the world has ever known. 

          The aerospace scientist, Dr. Abdul Kalam, too has had a meteoric professional career. Born in October 1931 in a family of modest means in his ancestral house on Mosque Street, Rameswaram, in South India, he was one of several children of parents who had no formal education to speak of. 

          However, he has by hard work, determination and total commitment to his field, risen to the very high position of Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister of the Government of India and Secretary to the Department of defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It is very unusual that a scientist is allowed by the government to continue in this post even though he has crossed the age of 66. 

          The organisation (DRDO) he heads has about fifty laboratories working in various areas of science and technology that have direct applications to defence. They exceed in number the laboratories that come under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). As the head (Secretary) of DRDO, Kalam is entrusted with an annual budget of about 15,000 million – a huge sum, by any standards. 













here is very little that can be called special about his school or college days. He was more or less an average student. However, thanks to his parents and his teachers, he developed a value system, character, integrity, dedication and commitment that are rare today. 

          His father was a pious Muslim, and one of his best friends was the high priest of the Siva temple nearby. They used to have discussions on religion and other topics, as a result of which, the young Kalam developed a catholic and cosmopolitan outlook. In fact, his best friend in the local elementary school was the son of the high priest of the Siva temple. 

          Kalam was lucky that both at the local school and high school at Ramanathapuram, he had very dedicated teachers who influenced him and moulded his personality a great deal. His teachers at school inculcated in him self-esteem and confidence and taught him the powerful roles played in life by three factors: desire, belief and expectation. 

          Kalam developed a keen desire to go for higher studies in college – something that no member of his family had the benefit of. Thus it was that he entered St. Joseph’s College at Tiruchi in 1950 at the age of 18. Teachers like Rev. Fr. Sequeira of St. Joseph’s College exerted considerable influence on him. 

          Kalam was greatly impressed by the way students and others of different faiths lived together in peace, harmony and happiness. Physics was a subject that fascinated him and he slowly began to realise that through science, spiritual enrichment and self- realisation were possible. He also developed in interest in subjects like cosmology and science in general. 

          After four years at St. Joseph’s, he joined the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT). This private institution was the only one in the country then, which offered post-B.Sc. and diploma courses in aeronautical engineering, automobile engineering, electronic and instrument technology. 

          Monetary difficulties to join the MIT were solved when his sister readily agreed to mortgage her gold bangles and chain to raise the necessary amount of about Rs. 1000. He was however determined to repay this amount to his sister as early as possible and also to win a scholarship, which he did at the MIT. 

          Even as a young boy he had admired the flight of birds and developed a fascination for the subject of flight. He therefore opted for the course in aeronautical engineering at the MIT. During these years (1954-57), his goal in life became clear, and that was to fly aircraft. 

          He also realised that because of his background, he lacked assertiveness. However, he slowly started to open up and communicate with others. 

          He was in a small class of about eight or nine students which made for close interaction not only amongst his classmates, but also with members of the faculty. As the number of faculty members was more than half the number of students, there was very close contact between them. 

          The three years at MIT made Kalam a different person. He became quite confident of his objectives in life and realised that he could perform well under stress and deliver the goods once he had made up his mind. 


t the age of about 26, Kalam graduated from MIT. He was then selected as a graduate aeronautical engineer at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited at Bangalore, and placed in the engine division, dealing with the overhauling of both piston and turbine engines.  

          He applied for a career in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and also for a job at New Delhi at the Directorate of Technical Development and Production (Air) (DTD&P) of the Ministry of Defence. He was quite disappointed not to be selected for the job and went to Rishikesh. 

          After a bath in the holy Ganga, Kalam walked in the Sivananda Ashram and met Swami Sivananda. The Swamiji seemed to have read his mind and asked him the reason for his sadness.  

          The question surprised Kalam who narrated what had happened. Swamiji advised him to accept destiny. He added: “Become one with yourself and surrender yourself to the will of God”. 

          He recalled the words of Kabir: “You must be content with the lot assigned to you by God. Have faith and patience”. The Swamiji’s words of comfort served to heal Kalam’s feelings of hurt and his dejection. 

          Kalam then returned to New Delhi and was told at the DTD&P (Air) that he had been selected for the post he had applied for. In fact, the letter of appointment was given to him then and there. Kalam joined DTD&P (Air) in 1958 and worked on a project dealing with supersonic target aircraft. 

          A little later, he was sent to the Aircraft and Armament Testing Unit at Kanpur, where he gained some shop floor experience. On returning to Delhi, he was posted at the newly set-up Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) at Bangalore. 

          At ADE, he initiated by himself a project to design and develop an indigenous hovercraft. He was heading a small group of four persons, none of whom knew anything about the design and development of a hovercraft. 

          What they lacked in knowledge however was amply made up by determination, enthusiasm and commitment. So the work started from scratch.

          After a year or so, the then Defence Minister, V. K. Krishna Menon, on a visit to ADE, was told about the hovercraft project. The minister, an ardent believer in self-reliance and one who had played a key role in the setting up and development of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, somewhat as a parallel to the CSIR, expressed interest in this project and monitored its progress regularly. 

          During another visit to the ADE, the Defence Minister was delighted to see that the hovercraft, named  Nandi, was ready for test flight and wanted to ride in it. 

          Brushing aside objection by the accompanying Group Captain, who was worried about the minister’s safety, the minister had a ride in the machine which was piloted by none other than Kalam. The machine worked quite well and the minister was happy at this accomplishment. He suggested that a more powerful vehicle be designed and developed by Kalam’s group.

          Unfortunately, not long after this, Krishna Menon was replaced as defence Minister and with this change, the hovercraft project was, for some reason, discontinued. Kalam was quite dejected at this turn of events. 

          But the call of destiny was nearing. Another visitor to the Director of ADE wanted to see the hovercraft. He was shown the machine and Kalam, at the request of the visitor, gave him a ride in the machine. Later on, Kalam came to know that the visitor was none other than Prof. M. G. K. Menon, the then Director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TFFR) at Bombay. 

          Shortly after this, Kalam was asked to appear for an interview at TIFR, Bombay, for the post of Rocket Engineer at the newly set-up Indian Committee for Space Reseach (INCOSPAR), which had plans to initiate space research in India. For the first time he met Dr. Vikram Sarabhai who was a member of the selection committee. Kalam was selected for the post of rocket engineer and this marked a watershed in his professional career. 

          Because of the advantage of Thumba (near Trivandrum in Kerala) being very close to the earth’s magnetic equator - which is quite different from the geographical equator of the earth - INCOSPAR set up in 1962 the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS). Its office initially was in a church which was acquired for the rocket-launching programme, with the full cooperation of the Church authorities. (The church today houses the space museum of the Indian Space Research Organisation). 


he authorities of TERLS selected Kalam to go to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for a six-month training programme on sounding rockets, and their launching techniques. This was the only training programme Kalam ever received in America or anywhere else abroad. Thus began a long and close association of Kalam with rockets and rocketry which continues even to this day, 36 years later. 

          The six months in America opened the eyes of Kalam in many ways. He realised how scientific research and technology development have to be well integrated like the two horses of a chariot moving smoothly. At the Langley Research Centre of NASA, he saw R&D work for advanced aerospace technology being carried out. Later on, he was sent to the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland to see the work being done on NASA’s earth-orbiting satellite applications. 

          The third and last leg of Kalam’s training was at the Flight Test Facility of NASA at Wallops Islands, where sounding rocket programmes are implemented. He learned how, in America, every item of work done had a definite purpose or objective, and how hard-working the Americans are. He also realised how by determination and commitment, they overcome the various difficulties, obstacles and hurdles that every project and everybody’s life are full of. 

          He was amazed to see in the reception lobby at NASA’s Flight Test Facility, a big a painting, depicting Tipu Sultan’s rockets being fired against the British, way back in 1794. The painting seemed to glorify Tippu as a hero of rocketry.  

          But nowhere in India, not even in Tippu’s Palace museum, was thee a painting like this one. Kalam understood why America had prospered in science and technology whereas the land where rocketry as a weapon was born, languished. 

          Indians, he felt, did not have a sense of national pride. It was almost always denigrations, belittling, criticising and complaining. The desire and determination to accomplish something creditable and teamwork were lacking. The six months of his stay in U.S. made Kalam a different man. 


n his return to TERLS in November, 1963, Kalam played a key role in launching the first sounding rocket (Nike Apache) made at NASA. TERLS was a collaborative project involving France, U.S.A and U.S.S.R. 

          Both Dr. Homi Bhabha and Dr. Vikram Sarabhai had clear visions about India’s national space programme. They included development of rocket fuels, propulsion systems, aerospace materials, advanced fabrication techniques, rocket motor intrumentations, control and guidance systems, telemetry, tracking systems and scientific instrument packages to be sent up in space. Thus the Space Science and Technology Centre (SSTC) came into being at Thumba in 1965. The first indigenous effort culminated in the development of the Rohini Sounding Rocket (RSR). 

          In the last 30 years and more, several hundred RSRs have been launched. The first one consisted of a single solid propulsion motor with a weight of 32 kg. and lifted a payload of 7 kg to an altitude of about 10 km. 

          Soon, one more solid propellant stage was added so that the payload had a weight of nearly 100 kg and it could reach an altitude of 350 km. The indigenous effort relating to sounding rockets helped in developing very  high performance solid propellants like the ones based on polyurethane and this led to the setting up of the Propellant Fuel Complex and the Rocket Propellant Plant.

          Kalam had constantly in mind that what was being done was a revival of the technology of rockets that Tippu Sultan had initiated. It had been forgotten for about 160 years after Tippu was betrayed by his own men and killed by the British in 1799. 

          A new beginning in the space field had been made in India in the early sixties, thanks to the vision of Pandit Nehru, Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. For his work on the Nike-Apache sounding rocket, Kalam was rewarded and put in charge of rocket integration and safety.

                                                                   (continued in Part II)

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