Decoding the Missile Man

Scientific spirit Scientific spirit: Kalam with Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 | AFP
  • When Vajpayee became prime minister in 1998, he called Kalam and asked him to join his cabinet.... "I would rather conduct the [nuclear] test than become a minister," he told Vajpayee.

A. Sivathanu Pillai

I have been fortunate to be associated with Kalam for more than four decades, working closely with him, as one of his close associates. I had the privilege of working with him on the satellite launch vehicle (SLV) project in the 1970s, on the missile projects when we were in Defence Research and Development Organisation through the 1980s and 1990s, and on the critical technologies and strategic sector industries for the Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council. My association continued even after he became the president and later also.

We had many successes and failures. But there was a bond between us that has lasted four decades and transcended those successes and failures. Kalam had a peculiar talent to cheer up his people after failures and bring out the indomitable spirit that lay in them.

I joined ISRO as scientist-engineer. SLV-3, the first launch vehicle project of India envisioned by Vikram Sarabhai, was the real challenge at that time in terms of technology, infrastructure and human resources. Kalam was the project director and I was in his team.

I recall an incident involving Kalam during the sounding rocket experiments. Two of the Nike-Apache sounding rockets, meant for evaluating the sodium vapour cloud experiment, failed as the nose cone did not jettison. Technical reviews were ordered to find out the reason and to work out a collective action plan. Being an international programme, there were some concerns.

A week after the second failure, Sarabhai was visiting Thiruvananthapuram. Kalam was asked to see him. Kalam was very nervous because of the failure and was worried about getting a dressing down from the great scientist. When Kalam entered Sarabhai's presence, the great scientist smiled at him, and handed over a sheet of paper. With nervousness and anxiety, Kalam opened the letter and read the contents. It was his promotion order.

Before Kalam could open his mouth, Sarabhai cut in and spoke highly of Kalam's capabilities and wished him a great future. Finally, when he got his chance, Kalam apologetically told Sarabhai about the failure of two flights. Sarabhai dismissed it with a wave of his hand and told him that failure was common, and that one learnt more from failures than from successes. "You are already in action and in the right direction. You will succeed. You are a busy bee,” Sarabhai said.

I have watched how Kalam's dynamism as project director of SLV-3 led to partnership with industries and academic institutions, and how he utilised the scientific talent available in ISRO as well as outside—even in the universities—during SLV-3 development phase. The technologies developed for SLV-3 provided the solid foundation for large size launch vehicles, PSLV and GSLV, which have now enabled ISRO to move forward and realise the vision set by Vikram Sarabhai.

Kalam formulated a management plan which immensely helped to complete the mammoth task of developing 44 systems with new technologies and their integration into a launch vehicle. He laid down the overall tasks to be undertaken in the next seven years to come for the realisation of the launch vehicle, and selected his team members based on each individual's core competence. The team consisted of scientists who had experience in various technologies and had proved their capabilities in various projects.

We worked hard and developed all technologies indigenously and went to the launchpad to launch the vehicle on August 10, 1979. Alas, it was a failure. All our efforts were in vain. We were shattered. But Kalam guided us to make the next SLV-3 flight on July 18, 1980, which was a great success.

SLV-3 became the first step for ISRO to translate the vision of Sarabhai to make India a member of the space club. The next effort was to build the PSLV. By now, Satish Dhawan was heading ISRO. He configured the unique PSLV, which is highly reliable and is the world's most cost-effective launch vehicle.

While in ISRO, Kalam was thinking about long-range missiles using the propulsion stages of SLV-3, so as to make our country a powerful nation that could have vehicles that carry nuclear payloads over long distances. But Dhawan applied brakes on these dreams. He believed that ISRO should not have anything to do with any weapon work. This forced Kalam to leave ISRO and join the DRDO where he started the integrated guided missile development programme. Two of these missiles, Agni and Prithvi, would become the strategic systems of India.

Kalam mentions it in Wings of Fire: "Meanwhile, I carried out an analysis of the application of SLV-3 and its variants with Sivathanu Pillai, and compared the existing launch vehicles of the world for missile applications. We established that the SLV-3 solid rocket systems would meet the national requirements of payload delivery vehicles for short and intermediate ranges (4,000km). We contended that the development of one additional solid booster of 1.8m diameter with 36 tonnes of propellant along with SLV-3 subsystems would meet the ICBM requirement (above 5,500km for a 1,000kg payload). This proposal was, however, never considered. It nevertheless paved the way for the formulation of the Re-entry Experiment (REX) which, much later on, became Agni."

Kalam will be mainly remembered for piloting the development of our indigenous guided missile systems. The work on the missile programme enabled him to develop an immaculate vision for the empowerment of the nation through high technology. In 1983, he initiated the Agni and the Prithvi development programmes with a vision to make India self-sufficient and self-reliant in state-of-the art high technologies. In the era of technology denials and control regimes, it was indeed a difficult mission. But he could visualise the risks well ahead of others, and prepare his team to face them, and overcome them, and transform them into success.

The Agni launch campaign was a special one, full of challenges of technical, managerial, social, and administrative nature. Kalam led a team of nearly 450 scientists and technicians as a major launch campaign with multiple organisations participating. A mission management structure was evolved and a launch authorisation board was constituted with Kalam as its chairman.

Agni was all set to make its first test flight in April 1989 after six years of laborious effort in the development of various subsystems and a large number of ground tests. The launch campaign commenced on March 31, 1989. A special launch complex was made operational in the Missile Test Range (MTR) at Chandipur with many instruments for tracking and telemetry. The mission control centre linked range safety, block house, SHAR range, down-range stations and naval ships which were monitoring the mission.

The launch countdown started on April 20, 1989. At T-7 (T minus 7) minutes, the missile was put on its internal power through the actuation of batteries. The pyros fired and the umbilical connector was pulled out. But at T-1 second, the 'hold management' procedure was resorted to and the launch aborted. It required a detailed review of all the power packages before the go-ahead command could be given. There were many important visitors—the defence minister, the cabinet secretary, the defence secretary, the three chiefs of staff, and many others. Everyone was disappointed. But before chaos could take over, Kalam took control of the situation. He ordered a detailed analysis of the failure immediately, and asked for rectification.

The system was ready once again within 10 days and a launch was attempted on May 1, 1989. Again, during the countdown at T-3 seconds, there was a failure in the first stage control system as one of the SITVC injection servo valves failed, leading to leak of the secondary injectant. The missile did not take off. There was a crisis. The government was very unhappy.

But Kalam was all along cheerful. He was completely calm and displayed extraordinary determination. He had seen earlier the SLV-3 failure on August 10, 1979 and he had all the experience needed to face a major failure and convert it into a success. He formed a team to look into the matter and rectify the flaws. I was asked to lead the team. We found that many components had to be redesigned and fabricated and the system had to be integrated and tested to environmental requirements.

We rushed to the work centre in Thiruvananthapuram, some 2,000km away from the launch pad, carrying the vital control system package of Agni. We worked round the clock for twelve days. Detailed analysis of the component failure and rectification action for the first stage control system was completed in record time. The failure was analysed thoroughly; design modifications were incorporated in the components and assembly, new components fabricated and the packages integrated in a clean environment. The integrated system went through all acceptance tests and the system was cleared by a specialist committee.

We could do all this in record twelve days—something which would otherwise have taken 60 to 70 days—because Kalam gave me a highly motivated team. The new system was flown to the launch pad in the same aircraft which was waiting there all those twelve days.

The launch campaign started once again in the midst of external pressures and continuous criticism from the press. The newspapers those days were full of cartoons, depicting Agni sarcastically as IDBM (Interminably Delayed Ballistic Missile). The final launch date was dictated by the hostile weather conditions including a threatening cyclone. The meteorological department and all partner institutions worked together as the ambient conditions created great anxiety. All work centres were connected through Satcom and HF links.

We got support from all—even from the Indian Airlines and Indian Railways. Through these 50 days, hundreds of team members were travelling up and down and both these agencies facilitated our travel with no advance reservations. The Air Force came to the rescue with its continuous support by providing aircraft and helicopters. The Navy helped with shipborne stations and Army with its medical facilities. At the ITR range, about 12,000 people had to be evacuated for safety reasons, from an area of about 3.5km radius from the launch pad. A combined effort was made with the local administration to move the people, give them shelter and food and make arrangements for their safety.

All along Kalam and his team were confident that the mission would be a success. On May 22, 1989, Agni took off and completed the mission successfully. The criticisms and abuses now turned into praise. The whole country rejoiced in the success.

Kalam worked with the department of atomic energy (DAE) to conduct a nuclear test. This he had started during the early 1990s when P.V. Narasimha Rao was the prime minister. Kalam was then scientific adviser to the defence minister, and the prime minister was holding the defence portfolio. This helped matters. He worked with the DAE to conduct a thermonuclear test. When everything was ready for the test, there was some pressure and it had to be called off.

However, Rao remained committed. After he lost the 1996 election, and when Vajpayee was sworn in, Rao called Vajpayee and told him about the preparations he had done and even advised him to conduct the test. But Vajpayee did not have the majority and had to go after 13 days. The next two prime ministers, Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral, could not take any effort. Then, when Vajpayee became prime minister again in 1998, he called Kalam and asked him to join his cabinet. Kalam discussed with friends like us, and the following day he went to have breakfast with Vajpayee. There, he told Vajpayee that the scientists were all ready for a nuclear test, and he should go ahead with it. He also told Vajpayee that he could carry on with the test only if he continued as DRDO chief, and not as minister. "I would rather conduct the test than become a minister," he told Vajpayee. Vajpayee agreed and called R. Chidambaram, who was heading the DAE, and told them to conduct the test in 20 days. That led to Buddha Smiling on May 11 and 13, 1998.

Kalam not only gave India its guided missiles but also enhanced the core competence of the DRDO in high technology areas. He gave a dynamic thrust to the organisation to innovate and continuously move to achieve new targets.

Kalam's leadership style is not from any management book. He is adept at conflict resolution and is a believer of the concept that any problem should be sorted out as a win-win for both sides. His skills at conflict resolution and promotion of team spirit were unique. He networked hearts and minds of the Indian people towards realising the vision of a strong, self-reliant, and developed India.

But what made him happy was none of these. He was once asked about it. He said he was happy when the SLV flew, when the Agni was successful. He was happier when the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile was launched, making India the first country to have a supersonic cruise missile.

From the composite material developed for Agni, lightweight calipers could be fashioned. This reduced the weight of the calipers worn by polio-affected children from 3kg to 300gm. When one of these was fitted on a poor boy, he saw tears coming out of the eyes of the boy's mother. That is the time when he experienced bliss or paramananda, he said.

Kalam's life was a mission—telling every youth of the country to dream big, to have high aims, to think and to translate that thought into action with hard work and perseverance. Like Napoleon, he believed that nothing was impossible.

Pillai was chief controller of the DRDO and CEO of BrahMos Aerospace.

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