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 A MAN OF DESTINY - II                                            


Prof. K. A. V. Pandalai









  Everybody at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) used to get very excited at the regular visits of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai for monitoring the progress of various projects. One day, at a meeting in 1963, he gave a detailed account of his vision of India’s science and technology policy which included programmes to develop rockets, launch vehicles and satellites - all of them concurrently. It seemed like a tall order.

          He was trying to inspire a group of young, inexperienced but enthusiastic scientists to become self-reliant in the field of science and technology as a whole, and space research in particular. His was a classic example of leadership by trust in all those who worked with him. Clearly, he was a born leader and a visionary. 

          Many laboratories in India were to be involved in the sounding rockets programme and for developing various types of payloads. Kalam was asked to interact with all these laboratories which included the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) and also payload scientists from U.S.A., U.S.S.R., France, Germany and Japan. 

          The work on the nose cones by Kalam and his group led to R&D work in the new area (as far as India was concerned) of composites which possess very desireable structural, thermal, electrical, chemical and mechanical properties. They are designer materials and could be custom-tailored to suit the specific requirements that one had. 

          The first filament-winding machine was developed by Kalam and his group in 1969, and in February of that year, the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, inaugurated the machine, using which, high-strength glass cloth laminates, to build up non-magnetic payload housings for the two-stage sounding rackets, were made. Also FRP rocket motor casing up to 360 mm in diameter were fabricated. 

          The Rohini rockets were followed by Menaka rockets designed and developed at TERLS. By 1969, the idea of building an Indian satellite launch vehicle was finalised. After an aerial survey, Dr. Sarabhai finally selected Sriharikota island, 10 km north of Madras city, as the site for SHAR. This island is an area as big as the city of Madras, and by launching from this range, the full advantage of the earth’s west-to-east rotation could be taken.

          In 1968, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established as part of the department of Atomic Energy which was headed by Dr. Sarabhai following the untimely death of Dr. Homi Bhabha in a plane accident. Kalam was selected by Dr. Sarabhai as the leader of the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) project. He was also given the responsibility for the fourth stage of SLV to be made out of composites.

           Soon after this, an important development took place. Prof. Curien of France was brought to Thumba by Dr. Sarabhai, who had in mind the possibility of technical collaboration in the space field with France. Prof. Curien was in charge of the French Diamond rocket programme. After interacting with Kalam and his group, Prof. Curien approached Dr. Sarabhai to see if Kalam and his group would make the fourth stage of the French rocket.

          Kalam was assigned to this responsibility also which involved innovativeness of a high order. There were those at Thumba who had doubts whether Kalam and his group would be able to deliver the goods. Undaunted, Kalam went on with this new project. After some time Prof. Curien returned to Thumba for a review of the work done by Kalam and his group. He was very pleasantly surprised at the good progress made and attributed this to the excellent teamwork by Kalam, as the project leader. 

          After about two years of hard work on the Diamond project, suddenly, for some unknown reason, the French cancelled the project and ended the interaction. This came as a great shock to Kalam who was down in the dumps at this turn of events.

          In the meantime, work was going on in developing a jettisoning mechanism. When Dr. Sarabhai visited Thumba next, he was shown the operation of this mechanism and was requested to activate it. But the pyrosystem failed to work properly. Kalam and his colleagues fixed the defect, and this time, when Dr. Sarabhai pressed the button, the system worked perfectly. 

          Dr. Sarabhai realised the reason for the failure - the lack of system integration of rocket stages. He decided to set up a rocket engineering section to carry out system integration. He was the type of person who always looked for and found solutions from mistakes made. 

          Early in 1969, Kalam was summoned by Dr. Sarabhai to meet him at New Delhi and the appointment given was at 3.30 a.m. at Hotel Ashoka. Appointments made at such odd hours were common as Dr. Sarabhai worked till the early hours of the morning and somehow managed with only a few hours of sleep.

          At this meeting, Dr. Sarabhai outlined to Kalam and others his plan to develop a rocket-assisted take-off (RATO) system for military aircraft and took Kalam at that ungodly hour (around 5 a.m.) to Tilpat Range on the outskirts of Delhi where he showed him a Russian RATO. He asked Kalam if a similar RATO could be developed in India in 18 months if the necessary Russian motors were imported. 

Kalam agreed to this time-frame and Dr. Sarabhai then proceeded for a breakfast meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. That evening the newspapers carried reports about the project for the indigenous development of RATO by a team headed by Kalam. 

          Kalam decided on a FRP body for the RATO system and to make use of composites propellant. In this period, Dr. Sarabhai came out with a ten-year plan for space research in India. It clearly showed the vision of Dr. Sarabhai as it emphasised self-reliance and the development of indigenous technologies. 

          Another development was the setting up of a Missile Panel in the Ministry of Defence. Kalam along with Gr. Capt. Narayanan who headed DRDL at Hyderabad, were made member of this panel. The two of them used to have long discussions about missiles and other military hardware and weapon systems. The basic idea was to attain self-reliance in the field of military hardware rather than go in for imports of every little thing needed by the defence services. 

          The development of RATO became an obsession with Kalam. At the same time the Satellite Launch Vehicle project was also under progress. DRDL at Hyderabad had by then started work on design and development of missiles, and the meetings of the Missile Panel became frequent. 

          One such meeting attended by Kalam was held on December 30, 1971. On his return to Trivandrum, he was informed at the airport of the sad news of Dr. Sarabhai’s sudden death in the early hours of December 31, 1971, due to cardiac arrest. Kalam was shocked and felt orphaned. 

          Dr. Sarabhai had been in reality Kalam’s mentor - the man who influenced him the most and moulded his professional career. After the initial shock, Kalam decided to work as hard as possible to fulfill the dreams of Dr. Sarabhai, which he thought was the best tribute he could pay to the departed soul. 

          Kalam, as project leader, believed in integrating people working on a project. He did not believe that solo performance helped very much in the execution of complex projects. What was required was coordination and excellent teamwork. The project leader was only the captain of the team. 

          After a brief spell when Prof. M.G.K. Menon of TIFR headed ISRO, Prof. Satish Dhawan, Director of the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore was selected to head ISRO. As a tribute to Dr. Sarabhai the entire complex at Thumba consisting of TERLS, SSTC, the Rocket Propellant Plant, the Rocket Fabrication facility and the Propellant Fuel Complex were merged and named the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), and a famous metallurgist Dr. Brahm Prakash was appointed its first Director. 

          The work on the RATO project was speeded up and it was successfully tested in ten months after the passing away of Dr. Sarabhai. This was the way Kalam showed his gratitude to his mentor. It was also for him the best way to get over his sorrow and anguish after Dr. Sarabhai’s death. 

Prof. Dhawan, in consultation with Dr. Brahm Prakash, appointed Kalam Project Manager of SLV - a mega project for Kalam. He gave much thought to working out a Project Management Plan in consultation with Dr. Brahm Prakash, who had earned a great reputation at the Department of Atomic Energy as a metallurgist. He advised Kalam (so much junior to him) that tolerance, tact and patience were needed to manage a big project like the SLV project. 

          The primary objective of this project was to design and develop a reliable launch vehicle for a 40 kg satellite in a 400 km circular orbit around the earth. The time-frame was about 64 months from March, 1973. 

          As he had not handled any project of such complexity considerable innovation was necessary. Above all, synergy among the available talent at the VSSC had to be created and team work and close cooperation amongst the various groups working on the project ensured. That was the main task of the Project Manager. 

          The SLV-3 had about 250 sub-assemblies, 44 major sub-systems and over a million components. More than 300 sub-contractors all over the country were brought into the picture. 

          The interaction with them led to “technological empowering”. Three important aspects that had to be constantly stressed were: the importance of design capability, realistic goal-setting and their realisation, and strength to withstand set backs which were inevitable. 

          The SLV-3 made use of a large number of materials, both metallic and non-metallic. To the former category belonged different types of stainless steel alloys of aluminium, magnesium, titanium, copper, beryllium, tungsten, molybdenum and so on. 

          Types of composite materials used included a large variety of glass fibre reinforced plastics, kevlar, polyamides and carbon-carbon. Ceramic-based composites could be used for microwave transparent enclosures, but they were not available at that time. 

          The key role of mechanical engineering also became clear as the project progressed, as also the need to mobilise sub-contractors in the private sector. For the first time in India, contract management plans were put into operation.

          At VSSC, new areas like avionics, digital electronics, telecommand facility, autopilot electronics, the development of propellants required (particularly solid propellants which was decided upon for the SLV-3), and so on were built up or strengthened. This was the first time such a complex technological project had been undertaken in India. 

          The industrial base of India in the seventies was nowhere as broad or deep as it is today. A team of self-trained, dynamic young engineers, in their twenties or early thirties, new to the complexities of the big task on hand, was moving ahead, thanks to their determination, creativity and the excellent team work established by the captain of the jumbo-sized team, Kalam, who had the full support of Dr. Brahm Prakash, Director of VSSC and Prof. Dhawan, Chairman of ISRO. 

          More or less at the same time, DRDO began developing a surface-to-air missile (SAM), similar to the Russian SA-2. The DRDO project, code-named DEVIL, was sanctioned in February 1972 and it was entrusted to DRDL, Hyderabad headed by Air Cdr. Narayanan, a dynamic go-getter who wanted to get results fast at any cost.

          Kalam decided to communicate freely with all the teams working on the SLV-3 project and acted as a sensor to every constructive idea or suggestion coming from any colleague at any level. A great deal of time was spent on communication which became his mantra. He fought against bureaucratic delays and insensitiveness and finally got the help of Dr. Brahm Prakash who delegated financial powers to the Project Team.

          Kalam gave the maximum freedom with responsibility and accountability to all his team mates which he found produced good results. As the project leader he had somehow to keep abreast of all that was happening around in real time and had to update his knowledge which called for proper time-management. Perhaps his being a bachelor also helped, as he could devote all seven days in the week to the management of the project. 

          In 1975, ISRO became a department of the Government of India with the setting up of the Department of Space (DoS). In Prof. Dhawn, the Chairman of ISRO and Secretary of DoS, Kalam found a very knowledgeable person. Both of them believed in employing proven technologies rather than take the risk of going for technologies under development and hence not yet proven.  

          After about eight years of serious effort involving many institutions, the first experimental launch of SVL-3 took place on August 10, 1979. It proved to be unsuccessful. A great deal of gloom descended on all the scientists, engineers and others who had toiled hard on the SLV-3 project. 

          Nobody was more dejected and unhappy than Kalam. In fact, he was broken-hearted. Luckily, both Dr. Brahm Prakash and Prof. Dhawan were supportive and consoled and encouraged him to try and try again till he succeeded. 

          After critically examining all possible reasons for the failure, a second attempt was made on July 18, 1980. This time it was a grand success. Those who had been down in the dumps a year earlier were now on top of the world. 

          Those who had laughed at the failure in August 1979, were now vying with one another to heartily congratulate all concerned, particularly Kalam who was honoured by not only the entire scientific community of India but also by the Government of India. 

          Perhaps all this created envy, and Kalam was sensitive to all this. Luckily for him, his talents and capabilities were needed elsewhere - at the DRDL, Hyderabad. Thus after about 20 years of dedicated work on the Indian space programme at Trivandrum, he left for Hyderabad early in the eighties.      

(continued in Part III)


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