Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (15th Oct 1931 – 27th July 2015) was an Indian scientist who served as the 11th President of India from 2002 – 2007.

Herein, we present some of the excerpts from his book Wings of Fire, An Autobiography (APJ Abdul Kalam).

CHILDHOOD

I was born in a Tamil family in the island town of Rameswaram in the erstwhile Madras state. My father, Jainulabdeen, had neither much formal education nor much wealth; despite these disadvantages, he possessed great innate wisdom and a true generosity of spirit. My mother, Ashiamma, whose belief in truth helped me a lot. She provided meals to the outsiders every day and in this way far more outsiders ate with us than all the members of our own family put together. I have endeavoured to understand the fundamental truths revealed to me by my father and feel convinced that there exists a divine power that can lift one up from confusion, misery and guide one to one’s true place.

My brother-in-law Jallaluddin always spoke to me about the educated people, of scientific discoveries, of contemporary literature. During Second World War in 1939, when I was 8 years old, Samsuddin helped me to earn my own money by doing newspaper work. After Independence, it was declared “Indians will build their own nation”. I had to leave Rameswaram and had to study at Ramanathpuram.

At Ramnathpuram, I took admission in Schwartz High School, where I learnt “To succeed in life and achieve results, you must understand and master three things​- desire, belief and expectation.”

​After completing schooling, I joined B.Sc. degree at St. Joseph’s but later I realized that I could have joined engineering long ago. Therefore, after getting B.Sc. I was selected in the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT). At that time my sister Zohra stood behind me, mortgaging her bangles and chain for a MIT  ₹1000 fee. I was deeply touched by her determination to see me educated.

​In 1958 after becoming Aeronautical Engineer there were two choices in front of me:

  1. Air Force
  2. Directorate of Technical Development and Production, DTP & P (Air), at the Ministry of Defense.

At Dehradun, in the Interview for Air Force, I could only finish 9th in the batch of 25 examined to select eight officers for commissioning in the Air Force. I was deeply disappointed and went to Rishikesh where I met with Swami Sivananda a man who look like Buddha replied to me on while talking- “Accept your destiny and go ahead with your life. You are not destined to become an Air Force pilot. What you destined 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, I joined DTP & P (Air) as a Senior Scientist Assistant on basic salary of ₹ 250/- per month. If this was to be my destiny, I thought let it be so. Finally, I was filled with mental peace.

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ISRO

At the Directorate, I was posted at the Technical Centre (Civil Aviation). If I was not flying aeroplane, I was at least helping make them air-worthy. After some time, I was sent to the Aircraft and Armament Testing Unit(A&ATU) at Kanpur but after three years I was posted at Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) in Bangalore.

During the working in a project team which was formed to design and develop indigenous hovercraft prototype as a ground equipment machine(GEM), a visitor came to our hovercraft. I was struck by the objectivity and clarity of thinking. He was Prof. MGK Menon, Director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR).

After a week, I received a call from Indian Committee for Space Research at Bombay after interview. I was selected as a rocket engineer at INCOSPAR. This was a breakthrough a young man like myself dreamed of.

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai along with MGK Menon & Mr. Saraf were present in the interview panel. At our biggest qualifications at INCOSPAR were not our degrees and training, but Prof. Sarabhai’s faith in our capabilities. Prof was responsible for the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) and Rocket assisted System (RATO) projects.

In 1969, Prof. Sarabhai decided to go full-steam ahead with the task of establishing indigenous capabilities in building and launching our own satellite. He finally selected Sriharikota, 100km North of Madras (now Chennai). In 1968 INCOSPAR was reconstituted as Indian Space Research OrganizationWhatsApp Image 2018-10-15 at 10.17.50 PM.jpeg

After some time, Prof. Sarabhai selected me as a Project Leader for his dream of an Indian SLV. At the same time, Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle project also started and a massive mission development project had also started parallel at DRDL, Hyderabad.

In 1968, Prof. Sarabhai came to Thumba as his frequent visit (Thumba- a rocket launch site). We requested him to formally activate the pyro system through a timer circuit but nothing happened when we pressed the button. In a flash, each of us mentally went through analysis of the failure. During the next hour when everything happened in right way, Prof. Sarabhai spend the next hour in redefining our tasks and in the small hours of morning, the decision to set up a Rocket Engineering section was taken.

Mistakes can delay or prevent the proper achievement of the objectives of individuals and organizations but a visionary like Sarabhai can use errors as opportunities to promote innovation and the development of new ideas“.

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On December 30, 1971, I got a news, Prof. Sarabhai was no more. It was a huge loss to Indian Science. For 5 years between 1966 to 1971, about 22 scientists and engineers had worked closely with Prof. Sarabhai. All of them later took charge of important scientific projects, before taking up the responsibility of organizing space research in India and becoming the Chairman of INCOSPAR Sarabhai Foundation.

  1. Sarabhai Chemicals.
  2. Sarabhai Glass.
  3. Sarabhai Energy Limited.
  4. Sarabhai Merok Limited.
  5. Sarabhai Engineering Group.

On 8th October 1972, RATO system was tested successfully and new Indian RATO could be produced at ₹ 17,000 apiece as compared to ₹ 33,000 imported cost. As participant in SLV project, we decided the deadline as flight subsystems of all subsystems through sounding rockets by 1975; suborbital flights by 1976 and the final orbit flight by 1978.

In 1979, a six member scheduled the first experimental flight trial SLV for 10th August 1979. But this test failed in the second stage and payload splashed into the sea, 500 km off Sriharikota. This incident has given us great disappointment and I felt a strange mix of anger and frustration but Dr. Braham Prakash (Director of VSSC- Vikram Sarabhai Space Center) gave confidence to try again soon.

A post flight review conducted on 11th August 1979 which was attended by more than seventy scientists. A detailed technical appraisal of the failure was completed and finally on 17th July, the launch of the second SLV-3 has started but it failed again. But in the early hours of the next day, on 18th July, 1980, India’s first satellite launch vehicle, SLV-3 lifted off from SHAR. I experienced mixed feelings. I was happy to achieve the success which has been waiting for me for the past two decades. I was sad because the people who inspired me were no longer there to share my joy- my father, my brother-in-law Jallaluddin and Prof. Sarabhai.

Republic Day 1981 brought with it a pleasant surprise. I was awarded with Padma Bhushan. Happiness, satisfaction and success in life depend on making the right choices-the winning choices.

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Now, India has made its entry into the small group of nations which possessed satellite launch capability. Anyone who has taken up the responsibility to lead a team can be successful only if he is sufficiently independent, powerful and influenced. First thing, build your own education and skills and the second way is to develop a passion for your personal responsibility as working on this project. I learnt, once your mind stretches to a new level, it never goes back to its original dimensions.

DRDO

In the year 1981, Prof. Raja Ramanna whom I have always admired and who was then, scientific advisor to the Defense Minister had invited me on a private tea and said DRDO needed somebody to take command of their missile programme which had been stuck at the drawing and static test bed stages for quite a while. Prof. Ramanna asked me if I would like to join DRDL and shoulder the responsibility of shaping their GUIDED MISSILE DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME(GMDP).

A minor tussle over my services occurred at this time between ISRO and DRDO. But the decision to appoint ne Director, DRDL was finally taken in February, 1982. I joined DRDL on 1st June, 1982. I realized that this laboratory was still haunted by the winding up of the Devil Missile Project (a project which was stopped after some years). Many excellent professionals have not yet recovered from the disappointment. I found almost all my senior colleagues living in

With the pain of a dashed hope. There was wide spread feeling that the scientist of this laboratory had been cheated by the senior officials in the Ministry of defense. ISRO was lucky to have prof. Sarabhai and Prof. Dhawan but DRDL had not been so lucky.

​A high-level body called Missile Technology Committee was formed within DRDL to take quick decision on vital scientific, technical and technological problems and the middle level scientists and engineers were involved in the management activities of the laboratory.

​After meeting with Defense Minister Venkataraman, Rs 388 was sanctioned for India’s prestigious IGMDP. MTC at DRDL was very happy when I presented sanction letter before them. The proposed projects were christened in accordance with the spirit of India’s self-reliance.

​Thus, surface-to-surface missile weapon system became Prithvi (“the Earth”) and the tactical core vehicle was called Trishul. The surface to air area defense system was named Akash (“Sky”) and the anti-tank missile project Nag (“Cobra”). I gave the name Agni (“Fire”) to my long cherished dream of REX.

​The most remarkable thing about DRDL was its large pool of highly talented people. I wanted men who had the capability to grow with possibility, with patience to explore all possible alternatives with the wisdom to apply old principles to new situation.WhatsApp Image 2018-10-15 at 10.17.51 PM.jpeg

The missile programme had been persuaded concurrently and had partners in design, development and production from twelve academic institutions and thirty laboratories from DRDO, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), ISRO and Industry. In fact, more than fifty professors and hundred research scholars worked on missile related programme in the laboratories of their respective institutes.

On 16th September. 1985 the first missile programme was conducted and successfully tested.

On 25th Feb, 1988, Prithvi was launched and it was an epoch making event in the history of rocket in the country. Prithvi has proved to be the best surface -to-surface missile today. On 22nd May, 1989, Agni missile, Aakash and Nag were successfully tested. On republic day, 1990 the nation celebrated the success of its missile programme and I was offered the Padma Vibhushan.

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I do not set myself as an example to others, but I believe that a few readers may draw inspiration and come to experience that ultimate satisfaction can only be found in the life of spirit. The great country will make enormous strides in all fields if we think like a united nation of nine hundred million people.

-(adapted from A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s autobiography-“Wings of Fire”)

Each individual creature on this beautiful planet is created by God to fullfil a particular role. All these rockets and missiles are his work through a small person called Kalam ,in order to tell the several million mass of India ,to never feel small or helpless. We are all born with a divine fire in us .Our efforts should be to give Wings to this fire and fill the world with the glow of its goodness.

​(Contributed by Aman, ECE, Batch-2015)

One thought on “A man, A vision, A journey- Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

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