One of the little known facts about former President A P J Abdul Kalam is that he has a medical invention to his name — a coronary stent built with missile composites that dramatically brought down the cost of heart stents from Rs 55,000 to Rs 10,000 in the mid-1990s.
The Kalam-Raju stent to treat coronary artery disease was the result of one of Kalam’s distinguishing features — his constant ability to push people to think about innovations for a country strapped for resources and technical know-how.
While he was known as the “Missile Man” for his work on missile technologies during his tenures in defence research labs like the Defence Research and Development Laboratory, Hyderabad, in the 1980s and 1990s, Kalam was also instrumental in laying the foundation of the rocket launch systems at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) during a nearly two decade stint at ISRO from the late 1960s to 1982.
Kalam’s leadership was recognised and fostered by ISRO’s second chairman, Prof Satish Dhawan — the man that Kalam considered his guru.
“We were all young scientists at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram in the ’60s. Dr Kalam was the head of rocket engineering at ISRO and was involved in the development of early sounding rockets like Menaka,’’ said former ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan, part of a crop of engineers from the 1960s who rose to the top at ISRO.
The SLV 3, the rocket system that has gone on to become the bedrock of the Indian space programme, has been Kalam’s biggest contribution to the Indian space mission, spawning new generation launchers like the Augmented SLV, the Polar SLV and most recently the Geo synchronous SLV.
“The scientists who went on to build India’s second and third line of rockets had worked with Dr Kalam when he was head of rocket engineering at ISRO. His greatness was that he knew everyone. His connect with people was always great,’’ said Radhakrishnan.
“Among scientists, we tend to classify people as the generalists and the super specialists, and he was a person who had a knowledge of totality. He had an ability to drive people to think,’’ he said.
Even after he left ISRO, Kalam’s views and opinions remained much valued in the organisation.
When ISRO was preparing for its maiden mission into deep space with the 2008 moon mission aboard the Chandrayaan 1, it was Kalam who insisted that ISRO, then headed by his protege Dr G Madhavan Nair, must land a probe (the Moon Impact Probe) on the surface of the moon rather than just orbiting the moon.
“I think he was a person who could make the impossible look possible and he actually made it possible for ordinary people to dream they could be anybody,’’ said Prof N Balakrishnan, senior aeronautical and computer scientist, a former associate director of the Indian Institute of Science and Kalam’s close confidante.
“If you look at it, he did not have a PhD from abroad, he did not have a great godfather apart from probably Satish Dhawan. But if he could make it in this country, he gave the hope that anybody could make it,’’ said Prof Balakrishnan, who said he spoke to Kalam at 1 am on Monday, adding that he shared a “father-son’’ kind of relationship with him.