Home / Politics / Policy /  From labs to advocacy: ‘Missile man’ A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s legacy

New Delhi: To former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who died on Monday at the age of 83, science and religion were different means to the same end.

“Science and religion are not opponents. While science tries to find solutions to the problems of human society, religion attempts also to do the same," Kalam said once at one of the innumerable interactions he held with school students as president of India.

And that is what he set out to do as an aerospace engineer, using science to find solutions to the problems of society.

In 1968, Kalam headed two scientific development projects that would play an important role in shaping the future course of India. The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) was created and Kalam was handpicked by Vikram Sarabhaim, India’s space pioneer, as the project manager of a team that would build India’s first satellite launch vehicle (SLV).

In the same year, the ministry of defence constituted a missile panel in which Kalam and V.S. Narayanan (who later became director of the Defence Research & Development Laboratory, or DRDL) were included as members.

The objective of the SLV project was to build an operational rocket launch system capable of launching at least 400-500 kg as payload.

“It was not easy. People did not know how to make rockets and everything had to be done separately from scratch, starting from propellants, and then everything had to be brought together to make a launch system," said former Isro chairman U.R. Rao, who was project director of Aryabhata, India’s first satellite, around the same time.

“Kalam had tremendous patience. He was a very good leader and was usually the last person to leave the lab after everyone left. He was just a fantastic human being," Rao said.

SLV-3 was successfully launched on 18 July, 1980 from Sriharikota Range, when the Rohini satellite RS-1 was placed in orbit, and so, India became the sixth member of an exclusive club of space-faring nations. And this was the beginning of Isro’s rocket programme.

With the progress of the surface-to-air missile development project, Kalam’s interactions with Narayanan also increased. The two had already worked together on the rocket-assisted take-off system, which was successfully tested in 1972 when a high performance Sukhoi-16 aircraft became airborne after a short run of 1200 m, as against its usual run of 2 km.

A massive missile development project had been taken up by the Defence Research and Development Organisation at DRDL. In his autobiographical book Wings Of Fire Kalam narrated how excited he was by the underlying theme of self reliance in these projects, the capacity to launch our own satellites and to build our own guided missiles.

“SLVs and missiles can be called first cousins: they are different in concept and purpose, but come from the same bloodline of rocketry. Almost parallel to our work on SLV, the DRDO was preparing itself for developing an indigenous surface-to-air missile," Kalam wrote in his autobiography.

After the success of the first SLV launch, Kalam was put on the mission of missiles.

A year after joining as the director of DRDL at Hyderabad in 1982, Kalam started working on the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP) and this project became his baby for the next 10 years. As part of the programme, four missiles had to be developed: short range surface-to-surface missile Prithvi, short range low-level surface-to-air missile Trishul, medium range surface-to-air missile Akash and third-generation anti-tank missile Nag.

And so Kalam became the missile man of India. There was no stopping him after that. In the years to come, Kalam was appointed chief scientific advisor to the prime minister from 1992 to 1999 and also secretary to DRDO. “Today, defence is what it is largely because of Kalam’s contributions and the technologies he developed," Rao said.

Kalam went on to play a key role in the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, a series of five nuclear explosions conducted by India in May 1998. Kalam served as the chief project coordinator, along with Rajagopala Chidambaram, during the testing phase and became a household name. The tests led to sanctions against India by the US and other Western economies.

Kalam went on to win the presidential election in 2002 and became the first scientist to become President. He retained office till 2007.

“Even when he became president, he was very much interested in science and technology and created a large number of committees so that new areas where country was deficient could be looked at. And he was good at identifying areas that had lacunae and needed to be worked on," Rao said.

Kalam spent his years as President for advocacy of science and with his innumerable interactions with students, became a youth icon. He also was the chairman of a team of 500 experts brought together by Technology Information, Forecasting and Assesment Council (TIFAC) who prepared a document called Technology Vision 2020. It focused on how India could become a developed country by 2020 by tapping science and technology.

“He was not only a great scientist, but also an outstanding programme manager for projects that required hundreds of components coming together," said Deepak Bhatnagar, a retired scientist from TIFAC who worked with Kalam on the vision document. “He would make sure that visions would become missions that are implemented."

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