In the passing of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, India has lost not just one of its most beloved elder statesmen, but a scientist who led from the front to help the country shake off its doubts and emerge stronger on the world stage.
Born Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen in Rameswaram in Tamilnadu in 1931, Dr Kalam sought a career in the air force. But fate had other plans for him. The air force selection board didn’t see much of an airman in the young aspirant and turned down his application. Bitterly disappointed, but determined, he decided to study aeronautical engineering—a move that would one day catapult him to a key leadership role in India’s then fledgling space programme. His enthusiasm and passion for hard work proved infectious for many scientists and engineers at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) who fashioned India’s first satellite launch vehicles in the 1970s.
That that was a time when India’s space programme did not have many buyers, with critics questioning the rationale of spending so much money on the space effort while teeming millions in the country remained hungry and homeless. India launching its own satellites simply seemed just a blue-sky idea—till Kalam’s team launched Rohini. It goes to the credit of Kalam for reinforcing the argument that these enormous problems were all the more reason to have a strong science and technology base so that the country could leapfrog its way to development. Kalam always held that India’s primary mission was three-pronged, based on freedom, development, and self-reliance. He led ISRO in chanting this mantra, inspiring a whole new generation of scientists to achieve technological self-reliance in a world of jealous competitors.
Kalam also played a key role in India’s emergence as a nuclear weapons power. On a gray morning in 1974, the world first learned of India’s peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) in the Rajasthan desert from pictures of Kalam showing then prime minister Indira Gandhi around the blast site. Subsequently, Kalam's prominent role in India's 1998 Pokharan nuclear weapons tests established him as a national hero. Add to this his contribution to the development of India’s missile programme, and it is no surprise that Kalam became such an immense influence in India’s strategic thinking, too.
One of the most enduring lessons in Kalam’s life was the value of persistence, which he learned at a very young age. Once, his father—a boatman—was ferrying passengers from Rameswaram to Danushkodi when a cyclone hit the coast. The boat was destroyed, but his father soon built another one and resumed work. A year later, though, another cyclone struck Danushkodi, sweeping away all the boats at sea again. Unswayed, his father coolly went about building another one. Later, when an satellite booster launch had to be postponed repeatedly because of bad weather, Kalam would recall his father’s words: “The only way to survive is to face your troubles and rebuild your life.”
The surprising ease with which he connected to children and the youth made him an icon who could reach across generations. He did not allow even his remarkable political career—that made him the 11th president of India—to detract from spreading a message of hope through his biography, Wings of Fire. No wonder the sum total of his accomplishments makes Kalam inarguably one of the most influential rocket engineers and spaceflight advocates India has produced. One who celebrated his life as a space visionary, pursued his boyhood dream and helped India become a spacefaring nation. RIP Abdul Kalam, a grateful nation salutes you.
Prakash Chandra is a former science writer with Hindustan Times. The views expressed by him are personal.