Abdul Kalam: India’s Werner von Braun + Champion of Youth Entrepreneurship

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, also known as “APJ” Abdul Kalam, was India’s equivalent of Werner von Braun, both brilliant rocket scientists. It is no secret that the rockets that launch planetary missions to Moon and Mars are also the ones that can carry missile heads. Thus, what a rocket scientist creates is dual-purpose technology and can be used both as a ballistic missile and a launch vehicle.

APJ and von Braun were masters of their craft who spearheaded ambitious rocket programs in two different hemispheres of the world. However, there are differences. Unlike von Braun, APJ did not have to work for a Nazi regime nor was he shipped out after a World War to a foreign country (United States) to inhibit his country of origin (Germany) from developing its military research capabilities. Werner von Braun is best known for inventing the V-2 Rocket and the Saturn-V, for Nazi Germany and the United States, respectively. Von Braun made it possible for the United States to go to the Moon. The Apollo program rode on von Braun’s brute rocket, the Saturn-V. As one of my witty German friends once pointed out, it was not the Americans who went to the Moon, but the Germans.

After the Allied victory in Europe in 1945, von Braun then in his early 30s, along with over 1500 of his fellow scientists, technicians and engineers from Nazi Germany was brought over to the United States as part of “Operation Paperclip” to develop the American missile and rocket program. In 1945, Abdul Kalam was in his early teens growing up in a coastal village in Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, India. His mother was a homemaker and father owned a boat that he rented to local fisher folk. Young Kalam used to deliver newspapers to supplement his family’s meager income. Unlike von Braun, APJ spent his entire professional career in his country of origin. APJ’s professional life spans four decades as a physicist, aerospace engineer and technocrat with India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Another difference between the two giants of missile and rocket technology is that one of them went on to become the Head of State, while the other did not. During his tenure as President of India (2002-2007) and in his post-Presidency years, APJ spent a significant amount of his time interacting with and inspiring students through his ‘India 2020’ vision blueprint on how to make India a developed economy. He toured educational institutions and lectured frequently. APJ advocated an education system that would create ‘employment-generators rather than employment-seekers’. Integral to his India 2020 vision was an army of young, trained and motivated entrepreneurs with access to venture capital. He believed in empowering India’s youth to take risk, push the boundaries of science and technology, while generating employment and fostering economic growth.

APJ passed away while delivering a lecture to the students of the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong on 27 July 2015. He was 83. After the passing of APJ, when I scanned through some of the world’s leading dailies that I routinely browse, I couldn’t but help notice a one Mr. John F. Burns describing APJ as a “self-made bomb maker” in the New York Times. I found that a tad bit racist, even unfair. Wonder what Mr. Burns would make of Robert Oppenheimer or Theodore von Kármán, or the likes of them in other geographies.

 

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Susmita Mohanty is an aerospace entrepreneur. She is co-founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit, her third venture and India’s first private space start-up.