Padma Bhushan Ramanujam Varatharaja Perumal, one of TeamIndus' senior scientific advisors and a member of its Yoda Council, reminisces about the days he worked with Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, whose 85th birth anniversary falls on 15 October, at ISRO.
APJ Abdul Kalam was one of the first four recruits into ISRO, which at that time in the 60s was called the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR). Around that period, NASA had agreed to train some Indian engineers on various systems around sounding rockets and Kalam was one of the four who were sent to their Wallop Island flight facility in the United States. After coming back, each of these engineers started building teams in their respected areas of specialization.
Satish Dhawan, who took over ISRO in the early 70s, knew Kalam from his days in Bangalore. Kalam had wanted Professor Dhawan, then at IISc in Bangalore, to guide him in developing a hovercraft, which he later drove on the streets on Bangalore. Satish Dhawan was impressed by Kalam's work and after consolidating what was then the different parts of the Indian space program, Dhawan appointed Kalam as the project director for SLV-3.
What's special about Kalam was that he had the vision to see deep into the future at a very early stage. The entire team, led by Kalam, wanted to do everything indigenously...
Compared to the other engineers who came back from the United States and were concentrating only on their specialized areas, Kalam was adventurous. He wanted to understand the directions technology would take in the future and started investing in building capabilities in developing composites. He could visualize the importance of it. That vision would pay off for the country and the third and fourth stage for the SLV-3 had composite motor cases.
The days of the SLV-3 was when I worked with him. I used to call him "Kalam" and he used to call me "buddy". I was then the project leader for the ground-based launch systems of the SLV-3. What's special about Kalam was that he had the vision to see deep into the future at a very early stage. The entire team, led by Kalam, wanted to do everything indigenously and not rely on other countries. "Why should I import?"—that was something that everyone was asking.
He was not all about technology. He was also a fantastic man-manager. Why else would he call me buddy? There was no pulling ranks and seniority around him. Kalam could connect with anybody, right from those in the lowest grade to the highest office.
Technologically, we had a series of failures at that time and every failure teaches you a hundred different things. Kalam made me the chairman of the failure analysis board. The big lesson for me from being given that responsibility was all about learning from failures. Success doesn't teach you as much as failure does.
He was not all about technology. He was also a fantastic man-manager. Why else would he call me buddy? There was no pulling ranks and seniority around him.
Kalam left ISRO in the mid-80s to move to the defence side and around that time I was given the responsibility of running the PSLV program. While we used to meet once in a while, it was certainly not as frequently after those initial years. After becoming President he hosted many ISRO scientists at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and he himself took scientists like us around the place.
If he were alive today, he would have been delighted, impressed and extremely happy to see such an effort as TeamIndus coming out of India. Someone like Kalam would have heartily supported TeamIndus. I am reliving my younger days by associating with such a great assembly of young engineers.