Our beloved Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam may not be with us physically. But his immortal spirit will be guiding us as we strive to fulfill his ideals and vision for India and the world. It has been our great fortune to have him amongst us.
My first recollection of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was in my first year at Thumba in 1971. Kalam, then 40, struck me as a cheerful but serious person, with long, curly hair and a leather bag. He was a co-passenger in the ISRO bus from Statue Junction, Thiruvananthapuram. As head of the Rocket Engineering Division, he led a team of stalwarts including V Sudhakar, CR Sathya, Abdul Majeed and G Madhavan Nair. This was the team that had already developed a Menaka sounding rocket and several novel elements that were a precursor to our satellite vehicle programme.
He became a star in 1972, first as chief of the Satellite Launch Vehicle Project (SLV-3) and later on as its project director. He gained quite a fan following largely due to his relations with the enthusiastic rocket community of nearly 5000 at Thumba. They worked with him closely in what was ISRO's first major project and adored him. I was a designer on the same mission and often saw him, notebook in hand, with the air of a good student.
"Largely from him, I learnt a valuable lesson to inform my own dealings with team members: Don't miss the forest while counting the trees."
When I returned from a degree programme from IIM Bangalore in 1976, I was assigned to the Avionics Group and discovered that Kalam knew almost every single person at Thumba contributing to the project. He had a habit of shooting pointed questions to anyone who crossed his path, because of which I too had to take care to be up-to-date on every aspect of my work. You didn't want to be caught unawares when he ran into you at the staircase!
Mr. Kalam was member of the Avionics Area Board that religiously met every month, and as the board's secretary for two years, I frequently noted his penchant to focus on the larger canvass rather than getting stuck on minor details. Largely from him, I learnt a valuable lesson to inform my own dealings with team members: Don't miss the forest while counting the trees.
After the success of SLV-3 in 1980, he set up ISRO's Launch Vehicle Programme office at its headquarters in Bangalore. I too moved to headquarters, a year later, to look after Budget and Economic Analysis for ISRO and during this period of working together closely on several fronts I got glimpses of the legendary institution builder that he was.
Finally, during my chairmanship of ISRO, he continued to be the chancellor of ISRO's Indian Institute of Space Science & Technology at Thiruvananthapuram. Though as chancellor, he held a titular role, he was keenly interested in the development of the institute and interacted with the students and faculty like an eminent teacher. His ability to inspire was at its best when we were grappling with failures of the GSLV (the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle necessary to launch very heavy satellites). During the days of the launch of the Mars mission, he arrived a day before the crucial Mars Orbit Insertion and took care to be with the Mission Team at Bangalore.
Aside of our jobs, we had a common interest in Carnatic music and I have had long discussions on the subject. In January he accepted my request to visit Bangalore and inaugurate a music festival conducted as a tribute to my music Guru Dr. R K Srikantan.