Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
on an impatient wind, A wind that wants to create a new order. An order of strength and
thundering of fire." -- from a poem written by Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is the undisputed father of India's missile program. He has breathed
life into ballistic missiles like the Agni and Prithvi, which put China and Pakistan well
under India's missile range. It is too exhausting to track Dr Abdul Kalam's achievements
to date. In the '60s and '70s he was a trail blazer in the space department. In the '80s
he transformed the moribund Defence Research and Development Laboratory in Hyderabad into
a highly motivated team. By the '90s Kalam emerged as the czar of Indian science and
technology and was awarded the Bharat Ratna. His life and mission is a vindication of what
a determined person can achieve against extraordinary odds. Even at 71, he is
indefatigable and dreams of making India into a technological superpower. More
importantly, he is still capable of acting on it.
Born on 15th October 1931 at Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul
Kalam studied at Schwartz High School in Ramanathapuram. After graduating in science from
St. Joseph's College in Tiruchi, he did his DMIT in Aeronautical Engineering at the MIT,
Madras, during 1954-57.
After completing his third year at MIT, Kalam joined Hindustan Aeronautics Limited(HAL),
Bangalore as a trainee. Here, he worked on piston and turbine engines examining as part of
a team. He also received training on radial engine-cum-drum operations. Here he also
learnt how to check a crankshaft for wear and tear, and a connecting rod and crankshaft
In 1958, when he came out of HAL as a graduate of aeronautical engineering, he had his
long-standing dream of flying, as two alternative opportunities for employment. One was
the job at Directorate of Technical Development and Production(DTD&P) of the Ministry
of Defence and another was a career in the Indian Air Force. He applied at both the
places, and the interview calls came simultaneously from both.
He went to Delhi for an interview with DTD&P, which did not challenge his knowledge of
the subject. Then he went to Dehra Dun for interview with the Air Force Selection Board.
Here too, the interview was more on personality test, rather than testing his knowledge.
He stood ninth in the batch of 25, and eight officers were selected to be commissioned in
the Air Force. Kalam could feel the opportunity to join the Air Force slipping from his
Dissapointed at his rejection by the IAF, Kalam visited Rishikesh where he bathed in the
Ganga and met Swami Sivananda "a man who looked like Buddha". He
introduced himself to the Swamiji, who did not react to his Muslim identity. He asked
Kalam about the reason for his sorrow. Kalam told him about his unsuccessful attempt to
join the Indian Air Force and his long-cherished desire to fly. Sivananda guided him
saying: "Accept your destiny and go ahead with your life. You are not destined to
become an Air Force pilot. What you are destined to become is not revealed now but it is
predetermined. Forget this failure, as it was essential to lead you to your destined path.
Search, instead, for the true purpose of your existence. Become one with yourself, my son!
Surrender yourself to the wish of God."
After returning to Delhi, Kalam received an appointment letter from DTD&P. On the next
day he joined as Senior Scientific Assistant, with a basic salary of Rs. 250/- per month.
Here, he was posted at the Technical Center(Civil Aviation). He lost his resentment of
failure, thinking he would be able to make aeroplanes airworthy if not fly aeroplanes.
During his first year in the Directorate, he carried out a design assignment on supersonic
target aircraft with the help of his officer-in-charge, R. Varadharajan, and won praise
from the Director, Dr Neelakantan. Then he was sent to the Aircraft and Armament Testing
Unit(A & ATU) at Kanpur to get shop-floor exposure to aircraft maintenance.
Upon his return to Delhi, he was informed that the design of a DART target had been taken
up at the DTD&P and he was included in the design team. After that, he undertook a
preliminary design study on Human Centrifuge. He designed and developed a vertical takeoff
and landing platform, and Hot Cockpit. Three years later, the Aeronautical Development
Establishment(ADE) was formed in Bangalore and he was posted there.
At ADE, Kalam served as a senior scientific assistant, heading a small team that developed
a prototype hovercraft. Defence Minister Krishna Menon rode in India's first indigenous
hovercraft with Kalam at the controls. But for reasons never explained, the project which
would have been a considerable international achievement in those days, was not
encouraged. This was probably one of the reasons why he moved out of ADE in 1962 and
joined India's space program.
During 1963-82, he served the Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO) in various
capacities. Here Kalam initiated Fibre Reinforced Plastics(FRP) activities, then after a
stint with the aerodynamics and design group, he joined the satellite launch vehicle team
at Thumba, near Trivandram and soon became Project Director for SLV-3. As Project
Director, he was responsible for carrying out the design, development, qualification and
flight testing of 44 major sub systems. The project managed to put Rohini, a scientific
satellite, into orbit in July 1980. He was honoured with a Padma Bhushan in 1981.
Agni intermediate range ballistic missile
In 1982, as Director of DRDO, Kalam was entrusted with the Integrated Guided Missile
Development Programme(IGMDP), India's most successful military research task to date. The
programme constituted of 5 major projects for meeting the requirements of the defence
services and for establishing re-entry technology.
The 5 projects were scheduled to be completed in a time frame of only 10 years and
(1) Nag - an anti-tank guided missile
(2) Prithvi - a surface-to-surface battlefield missile
(3) Akash - a swift, medium-range surface-to-air missile
(4) Trishul - a quick-reaction surface-to-air missile with a shorter range
(5) Agni - an intermediate range ballistic missile, the mightiest of them all
From his SLV-3 experience, Kalam had learned the advantages of team work and of sharing
the tasks with partners in private and public sector industries. In the new management
structure of the missile program, Kalam, as the Chairman of the Programme Management
Board, delegated almost all executive and financial powers to five carefully selected
Project Directors and kept himself free to address the core technology issues. His task
was to inspire and monitor over 20 institutions and partners outside - ranging from large
public and private sector suppliers to small specialist firms that needed seed money to
take up the precision tasks.
The naval version of Trishul launched from INS Dronacharya
The missiles went up more or less on schedule: Trishul in 1985, Prithvi in 1988, Agni in
1989 and the others in 1990. The development and successful flight test of Prithvi,
Trishul, Akash, Nag, and Agni established the indigeneous capability towards self reliance
in defence preparedness. The successful launching of 'Agni' surface-to-surface missile was
a unique achievement which made India a member of an exclusive club of highly developed
countries. The Trishul has the unique distinction of being capable of serving all three
The establishment of the Research Centre Imarat(RCI), a campus 8km from DRDL, in 1988 was
perhaps the most satisfying achievement for Kalam during the missile years. He received
generous funding from the Government to build the futuristic centre, which is totally
geared for work in advanced missile technologies. Its state-of-the-art facilities are set
in a unique ambience and the level of comfort accorded to the individual worker is matched
by few R&D institutions. And Kalam's interest in the environment saw RCI emerge as an
oasis in a rocky wasteland. It has a small farm that meets the food requirements of those
who stay in the RCI quarters. Kalam was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1990.
Dr Kalam and Defence Minister G. Fernandes at the Agni II missile launch in 1999
On 25th November 1997, in appreciation of his contributions to Indian defence and science,
Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was awarded India's highest civilian honour- the "Bharat
Ratna". In October 1998, he bagged the prestigious Indira Gandhi award for national
After 10 years in DRDL, he went to New Delhi to take over from Arunachalam as Scientific
Adviser to the Defence Minister - reluctantly, many in DRDL felt. But the system created
by Kalam had taken a firm hold in that decade and the missile programme passed on smoothly
into its final phase of production and induction.
In Delhi, Kalam as head of the DRDO had to deliver other prestigious projects, such as the
Arjun MBT and the Light Combat Aircraft(LCA) projects. "Strength respects
strength", this is Kalam's usual response to the question why India needs its own
missiles or a battle tank or a combat aircraft. While management practices he adopted for
the missile program have inevitably rubbed off on these projects, there are no miracles to
be had in strategic development areas. There have been technical problems. Even in the
missile program, work on the SAMs and the ATM is slower than anticipated. But Trishul's
recent multiple test flights have demonstrated that the system Kalam put in place has
Kalam is by no means a miracle man. As the head of a vast network of laboratories - whose
products include avalanche-controlling structures in Kashmir, water desalination kits for
the Thar desert, a world class sonar submarine finder for the latest warship - INS Delhi,
and infra-red night vision goggles for the Indian Army - Kalam's attention is necessarily
a bit diffused. His self-effacing persona cloaks a formidable catalyst who can make people
Army General V.P. Malik with Dr Abdul Kalam at the launch of INS Delhi
Kalam is happiest at the drawing board, in discussion with his scientists on how their
dreams for the next millennium can be fulfilled. The projects envisaged include an air
breathing hyperplane spacecraft that draws oxygen from the atmosphere rather than carry it
all the way from the ground, reusable missiles and stealth technology. Kalam has shown
that with adequate funding, freedom from procedural holdups and a people-oriented
management, India can make products of internationally acceptable technical standards in a
demanding arena like defence.
Science, according to Kalam, is a global phenomenon. He feels there are a few areas where
India can develop its core competence. These areas are software engineering, computer
products and design, agriculture and food, aviation, defence research and space technology
and chemical engineering. "This will lead to a highly beneficial economic and social
progress for the nation."
Kalam's advice to the youngsters of the nation is to "dream, dream and dream and
convert these into thoughts and later into actions." Also to "think big".
"We are a nation of a billion people and we must think like a nation of a billion
people. Only then can we become big."
On 25th November 1999, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was appointed Principal Scientific Adviser to
the Government of India and accorded the rank of a Cabinet Minister. His role was to
advise on overall scientific development in the country on issues relating to scientific
and technical policy in different sectors. Kalam also advised on matters relating to
achieving technological self-reliance and foreign collaboration.
On December 8, 2000, the Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission, Shri K.C. Pant conferred
the "Life-time Contribution Award in Engineering 2000" on Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
at the annual function of the Indian National Academy of Engineering in New Delhi.
Speaking on the occasion, Kalam said that Engineering and technology should be used for
the upliftment of the people living below the poverty line.
On November 10, 2001, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam quit as principal scientific advisor to the
government. Sources close to Kalam, said he quit because of "lack of executive
authority". However Kalam had been for quite some time keen on pursuing academic
interests and helping scientists across the country in developing their research
capabilities. Thats why after quitting he took over the job as distinguished professor at
Dr Kalam has spent the past few years developing the concept of "India Millennium
Missions 2020" - a blueprint for transforming India into a developed nation. He calls
it "the second vision of the nation" and says he wants to focus on the children
of India to ignite in their minds a love for science and the nation's mission: a developed
On July 25, 2002, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was sworn in as the 11th President of
India by Chief Justice of India B.N. Kirpal in the Central Hall of Parliament.
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