In the early 1960s, seven young scientists/ engineers were packed off to NASA for training so that they would one day lay the foundation for India’s civilian space programme. A P J Abdul Kalam, the former President and scientist who died on Monday, was one of the seven.
Selected by Vikram Sarabhai, they were despatched to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre outside Washington DC. ‘’I was in the first batch and we went in December 1962. Kalam came later, in March 1963. He stayed for about four months,’’ R Aravumudan, another pioneer of the space programme, told Express from Bangalore. In fact, Aravumudan first met Kalam at NASA’s Wallops Island Launching Facility.
The story of their American stay is described in the ‘A Brief History of Rocketry in ISRO,’ the biography of the space agency written by ISRO veterans P V Manoranjan Rao and P Radhakrishnan. Apart from Kalam and Aravumudan, the ‘Class of ‘62’ consisted of B Ramakrishna Rao, Pramod Kale, Prakash Rao, H G S Murthy and D Easwara Das.
‘’This group was exposed to all relevant aspects of launching sounding rockets. The aim of the training was to acquire hands-on experience in rocket integration, telemetry, tracking and command systems, facilities for a rocket launching station and so on,’’ says the ‘A Brief History.’
Neither ISRO nor the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) were founded at the time, only the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR). The Americans had deep apprehensions about INCOSPAR’s intentions and the Indian visitors were often asked whether they planned to use their newly-acquired knowledge for military applications. The Americans couldn’t be blamed, since the Chinese ‘dragon’ was rearing its head over India’s borders.
Some years later, when Wernher von Braun, the man behind Hitler’s deadly V-2 rockets which pounded Britain during World War II, visited India, it was Kalam who was selected to escort him from Madras to Thumba. It was von Braun who, after the war, laid the foundations for the American space programme. At the time of von Braun’s visit, Kalam was heading ISRO’s ambitious Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-3) programme.