PK Menon, chief scientist and CEO of Optimal Synthesis Inc, worked with Dr A P J Abdul Kalam early
in both their careers. He recalls what
working for the late scientist was like:
After graduating from the Indian Institute of Science with a master’s
degree in aeronautical engineering, I
joined the SLV-3 project as a Mission
Analyst. Dr Kalam was the Project
Director, and I was responsible for generating data on how the SLV-3 would
perform, the various ways in which it
could fail, and the type of actions needed
to achieve mission success.
I was in Trivandrum for 5 years, and I
found him in his office before anyone,
and he was invariably the last to leave
work. Young guys like me tried to keep
up with his schedule, but found out pretty soon that we lacked the stamina to
simply keep up with him!
The first launch of the SLV-3 was a failure due to one of the failure modes we
predicted. Dr Kalam asked me after the
launch what may have gone wrong. I was
able to give him an answer right away.
Although he was deeply disappointed, he
never let it show. He never pointed fingers at anyone, or tried to shift responsibility away from his shoulders. I heard
from someone later that he requested the
then chairman of ISRO, Professor
(Satish) Dhawan to blame him for the
failure of the launch!
All through the launch preparations, he
would call frequent meetings to review
the status of every assembly procedure.
The amazing thing about him was how
he retained his composure, even when
some of the engineers challenged his
assumptions. Many times he would ask
us to run an analysis of “what if” scenarios based on questions raised by engineers at various levels. Although he did
not have to, he always tried to include
everyone in the decision-making process.
Never once did I see him lose his tem-
per. You could tell he was not happy with
you by a strange expression he used to
employ: “You are a funny guy, I say.”
During the second launch, I was asked
to remain in the Block House (the rein-
forced building closest to the launch
pad). Having analyzed a great deal of
data, as soon as the tracking radar folks
announced a range of over 780 km to the
vehicle, I knew we had a successful
launch. I could not contain my excite-
ment, and I jumped up from my seat. I
was immediately asked to sit down and
After the launch, it was clear that Dr
Kalam was pleased. Although everyone
was hyper-excited, his response was
He was awarded the Padma Bhushan
right after this success. And one of the
universities conferred an honorary doc-
torate on him.
Unfortunately, no other senior scientists at ISRO got awards or recognition.
Not even a piece of paper congratulating
them. The reaction from them was
understandably negative. Although I am
not sure of this, he had a hard time staying in his position as the project director
after this. He never once showed his
frustration, nor did he put on airs about
his awards. He continued to work as
though nothing had changed.
It was during this time that he con- ceived the idea of using SLV-3 stages
to put together long range missile systems. He called me to his office one day,
together with Mr ASP and told me that
I should swear secrecy (about) a project
he had in mind.
He wanted to use the first stage of the
SLV-3 to conduct a reentry experiment.
I was highly excited, and suggested that
we should name the project ‘Rex’. Being
the only analyst in the Rex team, I had
the responsibility to run simulations
and performance analysis.
Since the project was secret, I also had
to make all the drawings. I had a great
time using color markers to create
posters. Apparently, he took it somewhere in New Delhi, where it finally
blossomed as the ‘Agni’ missile some
years later. He put complete trust in my
analytical abilities. Looking back, it
should have been hard for him to
depend so much on a very junior engineer.
PSLV configuration design had just
started at the Space Science and
Technology Center in Trivandrum, and
he was given the responsibility of running it.
Senior scientists at SSTC may have
made it difficult for him to do his job,
because the Chairman of ISRO transferred him to ISRO headquarters in
He was allowed two assistants; he
chose Mr ASP and me to accompany
him to his new position as the director
of Launch Vehicles Systems Design
Division at ISRO headquarters.
It must have been hard for Dr Kalam
to have gone from a nationally-known
figure to the person in charge of just two
engineers and a typist. If he was disappointed, he never showed it.
Fortunately, Professor Dhawan was an
upbeat, “let’s get to it” type person. He
would challenge us to come up with a
complete initial design of the PSLV in
one year. Dr Kalam and the two of us
would work 10 to 12 hour days to pull
data from Trivandrum and from jour-
nals to put a design together. The chief
controversy surrounding the design was
whether the configuration should have
large strap-on boosters (like the US Titian
IIID) or smaller strap-on boosters like the
US Delta launch vehicle.
Both Dr Kalam and Professor Dhawan
were leaning towards the second option to
reduce the development risk. Sever senior
scientists in the propulsion division in
Trivandrum felt that large strap-on boosters were the way to go.
Finally, towards the end of December
1981, the design was completed with the
small strap-ons. This is the PSLV configuration today. The large strap-on idea eventually found a home in the GSLV design. I
had just turned 30, and it was exhilarating
to have been a part of all this.
I was getting restless, because I had
turned 30, and hadn’t seen much of the
world, nor could I pursue the desire to get a
doctoral degree and do some serious
research. I applied to a US university during all the SLV-3 turmoil, and was accepted
with an assistantship.
I decided to leave India right after the
PSLV design was complete. Dr Kalam tried
to dissuade me from leaving — he said people who leave for America never come
back! Nevertheless, he asked me to apply
for study leave, which I did immediately.
I visited India six years later and visited
him in Hyderabad, where he was the director of DRDL. He invited me to go for a long
walk, and he asked me about what I was
doing in the US. Although he may have
been upset with me for having left ISRO, he
was very kind and courteous. We walked
for about an hour, and the next day, I said
my goodbyes to him.
The next time I met him was in 2006,
when he was the President of India. I had
requested to be allowed to meet him, and
officials at DRDO who knew of my association with him arranged it. I visited him
with my wife and two high-ranking DRDO
officials in his office in the Rashtrapathi
Amazingly, he was the same person I
worked with several years ago. He was very
kind and asked me what interesting
research I was doing, and then turned to
Prasanna and asked how many babies she
had delivered to date! He even remembered that she was an obstetrician!
My final meeting with was when I visited
DRDL in 2008 for a conference. Dr Kalam
was the keynote speaker, and the sincere
affection for him by the people at DRDL
was apparent. Our meeting was brief,
and consisted of a handshake and a thank
you from him for “having worked on several
dreams” with him.
I consider myself fortunate to have been
closely associated with Dr Kalam during
the early part of my career. He has left an
indelible impression on me, which I will
carry with me the rest of my life. He has left
a lasting legacy in Indian aerospace,
through the many individuals he mentored
and trained. Although he did not write any
key scientific papers, or invent an important device, he taught us all to cooperate
and strive towards the greater good.
Through his simple life style, and the way
he treated people, he set an example on
how to exercise great power. I am grateful
to have known him.
‘You are a funny guy, I say’
Those who worked with A P J Abdul Kalam always recall he never lost his temper.
P K Menon sifts through his memories of his first boss. Ritu Jha listens in.
a special level of sensitivity
“I had an opportunity to meet
President Kalam at a community
meeting in June 2009 in
Gaithersburg, Maryland. He was
on a tour of the US and had been
invited to a community gathering
that was raising funds to build a
school for poor, blind children in
“I was a member of the event
organizing committee. Before he
began his speech he told me that
we should replace the word blind
children’s school with (simply)
children’s school as the use of the
word blind would hurt the sentiments of the children. In his very
motivating speech he again made
the same suggestion. This was
the level of his sensitivity towards
the powerless and poor children
— Dr Kaleem Kawaja, a senior
NASA engineer and Executive
Association of Indian Muslims
of America in Washington, DC.