My association with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam began in 1967 when I joined the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station, Thiruvananthapuram. Through the years, he had been my guide and mentor. I learned about the technology behind rockets and project management from him. We worked together for nearly 20 years — first at Thumba and later on the satellite launch vehicle (SLV-3) project.
I owe all my achievements to this great personality. Kalam was a real taskmaster and used to set impossible targets. At the same time, he used to be our motivator and facilitator. He used to check that we were on the right track and if any mistakes occurred, he would help us analyse and resolve the issues. He saw to it that we achieved success in the shortest possible time. Kalam never blamed anyone for a mistake or failure. He used to encourage people to put in their best.
One of his biggest contributions was seeing through the successful progress of the SLV 3 programme in the 1970s. When we got into the SLV programme, we had only been launching small rockets that would go to an altitude of 10 km. Kalam envisioned launching a huge 20-tonne rocket with a spacecraft that would orbit the earth. We had no hope of getting this technology from outside. It was Kalam’s leadership that enabled this to happen. The basic technologies in a rocket system are complex and elements are integrated into future missions. The technology for the rocket, control system, navigation system, etc that were developed during the SLV 3 time have formed the foundation for Isro’s PSLV and GSLV systems.
One of the remarkable things about Kalam was his intuitive decision-making. He had a knack for spotting trouble well in advance. We encountered many failures in the SLV programme and he always used to say that failure is the stepping stone to success. Today, Isro’s project management system stands out as one of the most purposeful in the world because of his efforts.
After leaving the space programme, he took up the challenge of providing a missile shield for the country. Prithvi, Agni, Akash, etc are his brainchildren. Later on, he worked on weapons systems. When the weapons system was realised, I asked him why we were developing it and he said that only strength can draw the respect of others. He looked at the entire thing as a deterrent.
I will not classify Kalam as a pure scientist. He was not the kind of person to write a thesis or solve equations and things like that. But he knew the critical issues in development programmes, whom to tap — a senior scientist, technician or professor. He had high respect for the professors and teaching staff at our leading science institutions and always used to tap their wisdom. He was able to synthesise the knowledge of hundreds of people to solve a single problem. There is practically no other person who has successfully completed so many missions in such a short time.
When we were thinking of the moon mission and had completed the design of the moon probe, we made a presentation to him at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Kalam asked what we were going to do about putting an Indian flag on the moon. That is how we conceived the Moon Impact Probe, which put the Indian flag on the moon on November 14, 2008.
He always said success was something to be celebrated, but he also believed that failure was something that you must concentrate all your energies on resolving. When the first PSLV launch failed, he was scientific advisor to the government. He took a flight to Sriharikota and spent a whole day and night with me to help us overcome the setback and chalk out a recovery plan. He believed that failure was a teacher. This was the kind of philosophical approach he brought to problem-solving. He had the knack of putting his finger on the issue and pointing you in the right direction. There were numerous occasions when we were groping in the dark and a few innocent questions from him would get us thinking and steer us in the right direction.
Kalam was also a great humanitarian. He was always thinking of the welfare of the people. His aim was to see that the entire country benefited from his presidency. He wanted facilities that existed in cities taken to rural areas. Providing urban infrastructure in rural areas was a project close to his heart.
Kalam always believed that for achieving the development goals of the country, the youth must be empowered. This is why he was always interacting with the youth and schoolchildren. It is a strange coincidence that he breathed his last talking to a group of young people in Shillong.
In the early days, after we mastered composites technology for our rockets, he used the knowhow to devise lightweight supports for polio-affected children. The Kalam stent was another contribution he made. He wanted materials and technology used in the space programme to be adapted for solving the problems of ordinary people. As DRDO chief, he contributed to the healthcare system. He wanted technology to be put to use, not confined to laboratories or universities.
Kalam’s system concepts and system integration capabilities were put to use in the nuclear programme as well as when he was scientific advisor and was involved with the nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1998. Technology was flown in from various laboratories, the ordnance factories and so on. He was the synthesiser of all these technologies. He provided leadership to the programme.
Kalam never carried the baggage of one responsibility to another. As president, he left his days as scientific advisor and scientist behind and focused on the wellbeing of the people of India. After his term as president was over, he concentrated on sparking the minds of children and the youth.
Whenever I faced some trouble, one of the persons I would turn to for support was Kalam. We used to call each other quite often. I would get calls from him even in the middle of the night. Discussions with him were fulfilling. He was a great friend, philosopher and guide to me.
The writer is a former chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation.
(This article appeared in print under the headline ‘The problem-solver’)