There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with economically advanced nations in the exploration of the Moon or the planets or manned space-flights. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to address the real problems of man and society.– Excerpt from ‘Wings of Fire’: An Autobiography of APJ Kalam
[Former President of our country and eminent scientist, APJ Abdul Kalam passed away in Shillong. Dr. John Sailo, CEO of Bethany Hospital confirmed that he was brought to the hospital around 7 p.m. without a pulse and efforts to revive him were not successful. The cause of his death is unknown for certain, but they assume it must have been a cardiac event of some kind. As the nation mourns and honours them in their own way, as members of one of the younger generations in India, we chose to focus on an area of his work that always inspired us the most, and we believe challenged young Indians to dream bigger. This is the story of how one former President of India launched India’s first rocket and eventually became instrumental in India’s to explore space.]
Religion is one of the last places where one can expect scientific and rational thought to be encouraged, much less space exploration. But remarkably, this is where the story of India’s space story started--in a church in Kerala.
Thumba, a simple Kerala fishing hamlet with close to 500 thatched huts and a Church, was suddenly overrun by scientists and space experts from all over the country in 1963. 1.5 sqkm of Thumba was acquired and St. Mary Magdalene’s Church was made into a workshop for an experienced team of scientists and engineers, many of whom had undergone training at NASA. With a newly built rocket launch pad set amidst Mango groves, a cattle shed that served as a a laboratory and a bishop’s house, which was turned into a workshop, the efforts of the team were lead under Vikram Sarabhai’s Indian Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) and culminated in the launch of India’s first sounding Rocket on November 21st,1963. The jubilant team behind this achievement also included a future President of India, Dr. Abdul J Kalam, himself.
It’s ironic that a man who dedicated his life to various sciences, is more often remembered with a connotation aligned with his accomplishments in the defence field (he’s best known as India’s ‘Missile Man’) rather than any of his other accomplishments before, or even by his other moniker, India’s ‘Rocket Man.’ Nothing factually incorrect of course, it holds up consistently considering he started out his career in DRDO, Defence Research & Development Organization (designing a small helicopter for the Indian Army was his first job) in 1960 and eventually played a pivotal role in our nuclear development programme but what many tend to miss out is that Kalam was never convinced by his initial career in the DRDO.
It was while working under Vikram Sarabhai, otherwise known as the Father Of The Indian Space Program, and ultimately joining ISRO in 1969 that he is said to have “found himself.” Here, he quickly saw both successes, scientific stimulation and more when he joined as the project director of India’s first Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-I) which successfully deployed the Rohini satellite in near-earth orbit in July 1980. Even as part of the DRDO, Kalam had already begun work on an expandable rocket project but now, as a part of ISRO, he was able to push for government approval and include more engineers for the project. Between 1969 and and 1990, it would hardly be conjecture to conclude that Kalam was hugely responsible for the massive evolution of ISRO’s launch vehicle programme, particularly the PSLV or polarised satellite launch vehicle.
It is true that he was simultaneously initiating an advanced missile programme during Indira Gandhi’s regime, despite the disapproval of the Union Cabinet, ultimately even coming onboard to lead the government’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme as the Chief Excutive. He even regarded his work on India’s nuclear weapons programme as a a way in which to assert India’s place as a future Superpower, a theory he makes abundantly clear in his book India 2020, and hence, it would be absolutely incorrect to insinuate that he was not equally driven to transform and advance these areas of science and his own career as well. But none of these came before he cemented the foundations for future Space Exploration in India.
It continued to be an aspect of scientific progress he championed from afar and through guidance, and will likely remain what young, starry-eyed Indians will forever remember him most fondly for. By and large, Dr. Kalam was always a scientist first and foremost, a President only later but never was his life as untouched by outwardly political agenda or so purely dedicated towards scientific pursuit in entirely unknown realms of exploration, as his years at ISRO. It’s reminiscent, in fact, of one of his most powerful quotes about the purity of scientific pursuit till date, and one that we’d like to leave you with. “Science is global. Einstein’s equation, E=mc2, has to reach everywhere. Science is a beautiful gift to humanity, we should not distort it. Science does not differentiate between multiple races.”
R.I.P. Dr. Kalam. The nation has lost a great mind, and one of its most worthy role models for the youth. We only hope the legacy you leave behind is honoured with big dreams, still bigger ambitions, and an inspired will to change the course of this country for the better.