Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, a distinguished aerospace technologist who led the development of the country’s first satellite launch vehicle as well as
the first indigenous operational missiles, then went on to become first the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and later the Principal Scientific Adviser to
the Government of India, and finally entered national politics as the 11th President of the Republic, passed away on 27 July 2015 as he had just begun to address students at the Indian Institute of Management at Shillong. His death has taken away one of the most remarkable and charismatic figures, not only in Indian science and technology but also in Government, politics and public life.
Kalam was born in Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu) on 15 October 1931 to Jainulabdeen and Ashiamma, parents of modest means whose income Kalam supported by selling newspapers when he was a young boy. After schooling in the neighbourhood, he went to Tiruchirappalli in 1950, and obtained a B Sc in Physics from St Joseph’s College in 1954. He found physics was not his cup of tea, and furthermore jobs for physicists were scarce. So during the next three years he studied aeronautical engineering at the Madras Institute of Technology, where he obtained a Diploma (equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree, DMIT), and went to HAL Bangalore for shop-floor training. He wanted to be a pilot, but just missed being selected by IAF. However he got a position at the Directorate of echnical Development and Production (DTD&P (Air)) at Delhi in 1955, and three years later was posted to the Aeronautical Development Estab lishment (ADE) at Bangalore. Here he designed and operated the country’s first ground effect machine or hovercraft, which attracted a great deal of technical and political attention as it could be a useful transport vehicle in an otherwise difficult terrain like the Rann of Kutch or any river delta. Although a flying prototype
won excited praise from Defence Minister V. K. Krishna Menon, the project was inexplicably shelved – it was Kalam’s first experience with the harsh
realities of public decision-making. Fortunately M. G. K. Menon (Director of TIFR at the time), visiting ADE, was quick to recognize Kalam’s unusual abilities, drive and passion; this led to Vikram Sarabhai (who was then heading the Indian National Committee for Space Research) hiring Kalam in 1964 as a
Rocket Engineer at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) near Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum). Here Kalam led a series of programmes including fibre-reinforced plastic technology development, and was Chief Designer for a Rocket-Assisted Take-Off system for aircraft. At that time the programme conceived by Sarabhai was still in its initial stages; its assets, including Kalam and some of his sounding rockets and equipment, were housed in an ancient church building that had been generously handed over by the Bishop of Trivandrum for use in Sarabhai’s projects. During some of the visits I made there at that time, both guests and hosts, including Kalam and his colleagues, stayed at what was called the Rocket Club in the City and ate at the Railway Station: Kalam was a vegetarian, spoke only Tamil and English and was already a popular figure among the engineers working there, who ffectionately called him ‘Kalam Iyer’.