Many rocket failures shaped the 'Missile Man'

Kalam, undeterred by failures during Agni and Prithvi launches, led his DRDO team to success

Many rocket failures shaped the 'Missile Man'
Prithvi and Agni, the two most famous missiles A P J Abdul Kalam was behind, began with big failures, because of which the Defence Research and Development Organisation faced enormous criticism from all quarters.

However, Kalam withstood all and led his men to success within days. Both missiles are now being used by the armed forces. Prithvi was India's first attempt at a surface-to-surface missile, with Kalam heading the team at the Defence Research and Development Laboratory, Hyderabad. Several years of laboratory work led to a launch date in February 1988.

Minutes before lift-off, the missile shuddered violently on the bay. Everyone nearby ran helter-skelter, fearing an explosion, which did not happen. However, the mission was aborted.

Kalam, however, was unflappable and demanded a report on the failure the next day, according to “Weapons of Peace”, a book that chronicled India's quest for a nuclear deterrence. The fault was identified and corrected within days, and Prithvi was launched successfully on February 25, 1988.

“It was an epoch-making event in the history of rocketry. It was the basic module for all future guided missiles in the country,” wrote the former president in his autobiography “Wings of Fire”. Intermediate-range ballistic missile Agni witnessed more failures. More than 500 scientists were involved and many organisations were networked for its development. The first launch was scheduled for April 20, 1989.

At T-14 seconds, ie, 14 seconds before launch, the computer signalled “Hold”, indicating instrument malfunction. Within seconds, “Hold” signals came from several other instruments, compelling the scientists to abort the launch. A second launch was planned for May 1, but again the “Hold” sign came up — for a different reason — 20 seconds before lift-off, and the launch was aborted again. Kalam and his team were under tremendous pressure. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was waiting for success. The third launch date was May 22.

A night before the launch, then defence minister K C Pant asked Kalam how he would like to celebrate success the next day. Kalam said he would like to plant 1 lakh saplings in the Research Centre Imarat campus. “You are buying the blessings of Mother Earth for Agni,” quipped Pant. The next day, Agni had a perfect launch at 0710 hours.

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