Rare Pictures of India’s ‘Rocket Man’ APJ Abdul Kalam

Rare pics of Dr Kalam as a young ISRO scientist – from transporting rockets on bullock carts to Pokhran-II.

4 min read

(This article was first published on 28 July 2015 and is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the death anniversary of India’s Rocket Man.)

A hovercraft program piloted by APJ Abdul Kalam at Bangalore’s Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) was discontinued despite its success.

But the hovercraft program piqued the interest of the Director of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) who called Kalam for an interview.

The founder of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Vikram Sarabhai just happened to be on the selection committee.

Needless to say, Kalam was selected for the post of rocket engineer, as that meeting with Vikram Sarabhai across an interview table, proved to be a turning point in his career.


Dr Kalam was among a handful of scientists who started working alongside Vikram Sarabhai at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) right from the beginning. From transporting rockets and satellites on bullock carts in the 1970s and 1980s to leading Pokhran-II, when India re-asserted itself as a nuclear state in 1998, Abdul Kalam is rightfully called India’s ‘Missile Man’.

It is believed that when the Cabinet was against the idea of diverting money towards India’s advanced missile program, it was Kalam who convinced Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to continue funding critical aerospace and defence projects.

Chronicling his life, Professor KAV Pandalai writes that Kalam was amazed to see that the reception at NASA’s Flight Test Facility had a big painting depicting Tipu Sultan’s rockets being fired against the British (Mysorean rockets) at the British, way back in 1794.

The painting seemed to glorify Tippu as a hero of rocketry. But nowhere in India, not even in Tippu’s Palace museum, was there a painting like this one. Kalam understood why America had prospered in science and technology whereas the land where rocketry as a weapon was born, languished. Indians, he felt, did not have a sense of national pride. It was almost always denigrations, belittling, criticising and complaining. The desire and determination to accomplish something creditable and teamwork were lacking. The six months of his stay in US made Kalam a different man.

There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with economically advanced nations in the exploration of the Moon or the planets or manned space-flights.

But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to address the real problems of man and society.

– Excerpt from Wings of Fire: An Autobiography of APJ Kalam

As journalist Manaman Chhina puts it, Kalam went from wearing a Colonel’s ribbons at the 1998 nuclear tests, to becoming the Supreme Commander of Armed Forces.

By 1998, India had begun to stagnate as a nuclear state. Without being able to conduct its own nuclear tests, research was stuttering. Since Pokhran-I in 1974, under Indira Gandhi, India had refrained from nuclear testing thanks to repeated diplomatic pressure from the West.

But in 1998, backed by an enthusiastic chief scientist, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee chose to be resolute. Between May 11 and 13, one fusion and four fission nuclear bombs were tested at Pokhran under the guidance of the then DRDO Chief APJ Kalam.

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