Revisiting Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam’s Historic ISRO Days
India’s 11th President passed away on this day, back in 2015
Today marks the seventh death anniversary of India’s 11th President and eminent rocket scientist, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. Remembered by several foreign and national admirers, the ‘missile man’, as he was called, passed away mid-lecture while at the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong — marking a dark day in India’s political and scientific history.
While Kalam led the country as President from 2002 to 2007, most of his life before and after this period was dedicated to the pursuit of progressing India’s aerospace and educational capabilities — particularly during his long history with India’s space program at ISRO.
Here’s 5 iconic moments in the late leader’s life, connected to ISRO’s own iconic history:
1. A close shave — being saved by fellow scientist Nambi Narayanan
Kalam’s early days in ISRO, then-called INCOSPAR, were spent experimenting with rocketry at a very humble stage, at least compared to the organisation’s capabilities today. The outfit operated out of a small church in Thiruvananthapuram — equipped with rockets provided by friendly foreign countries, capable of 100km altitudes, or less.
While preparing for the launch of one such French Centaure rocket, a gunpowder-based igniter was being made by an ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan.
Once at the right altitude, the igniter would trigger a small explosion and release the rocket’s chemical payload into the atmosphere, thus helping conduct the experiment — for which he required Kalam.
Only 36 at the time, Kalam peered into the gunpowder-laden jar as Nambi’s assistant cleared the area for the experiment. This in itself wasn’t harmful as long as the container within was vacuum sealed as expected.
However, at the last moment, Nambi realised that the vacuum seal was incorrectly made. This meant that the gunpowder would explode as usual with Kalam just a hair’s breadth away.
Within a second, Nambi Narayanan leapt across and pushed Kalam to safety, before a blast rocked the room and glass splinters flew all across. After the smoke had settled, Kalam sat up and told Nambi, simply — “See, it fired”.
2. Becoming Project Director
Soon after, Kalam rose through the ranks of the organisation and oversaw the development of India’s first indigenous satellite launch vehicle (SLV) as the project’s main leader. 10 years of development led to India’s first major triumph in space technology, as SLV-III successfully launched satellite Rohini into orbit in July 1980.
3. Becoming the ‘Missile Man’
After launching Rohini into orbit, Kalam went on to spearhead two major projects — codenamed ‘Devil’ and ‘Valiant’ — aiming to produce India’s first ballistic missiles. According to the government database Vikaspedia, then-PM Indira Gandhi decided to support Kalam through a secret funding program, despite cabinet opposition.
4. Propelling India’s Defence Capabilities
While both the aforementioned projects were eventually shut down, Kalam continued his work, using his newfound learnings to support both ISRO and the Indian Armed Forces. He directed the development of Agni, an intermediate-range ballistic missile and Prithvi, a tactical surface-to-surface missile.
Both programs evolved constantly throughout the decades, and are being developed even today.
(Featured Image Credits: Government of India)