The year was 1931. The place was Rameshwaram. A boy was born to a Tamil family in a pilgrimage centre on Pamban Island. That’s where the story began in the infamous autobiography -Wings of Fire. This was the boy who was going to change the map of Indian Space Research Organization forever and take it to heights no one had ever imagined of.
Written by Arun Tiwari and great visionary scientist and former president- Dr. A.P. J. Abdul Kalam, Wings of Fire is an autobiography that has motivated many- including ME! And I give special emphasis to the word ‘me’ here because I- personally- have never been a big fan of autobiographies and memoirs. Quite frankly, I find most autobiographies boring. So to be honest, I was a little disappointed when my dad gifted me this book for my twelfth birthday.
“Why are you giving me this?! You always give me cool stuff to read or play with,” the twelve-year-old me whined.
“But you find space stuff cool, right?” he said. “Just give it a look. I think it’s worth reading.”
I doubted that. Nevertheless, I started reading. And before I knew it, I had completed the whole book.
I had read it seven years ago but I still remember this story vividly where Kalam narrated about the launching of satellite SLV-3. It was 1979 and he was the project director. His mission was to put the satellite in the orbit. Thousands of people had been working on the project for nearly ten years! Everyone waited with bated breath as the satellite prepared to lift off from the launch pad of Sriharikota. The countdown was going on… T minus 4 minutes, T minus 3 minutes, T minus 2 minutes, T minus 1 minute, T minus 40 seconds. And the computer put it on hold- DON’T LAUNCH IT.
Panic stroke in.
He was the mission director. He had to take a decision. The experts advised him to go ahead with the launch as they were confident about their calculations. So Kalam decided to bypass the computer and launched the rocket.
There are four stages before the satellite is launched. The first stage went off well. And in the second, the system went crazy. It went into a spin. Instead of putting the satellite in orbit, it put it into the Bay of Bengal. It was the first time Kalam was facing such a huge failure. How was he going to manage it? Success is easily manageable, but how was he going to deal with failure?
That’s where the role of ISRO chief Satish Dhawan came in, who held a press conference despite the fear of criticisms. He answered everyone’s questions. “Dear friends, we have failed today. I want to support my technologists, my scientists, my staff, so that next year they succeed,” Kalam quoted Dhawan as saying. “He took the whole blame on himself despite criticisms. He took all the blame and assured them that next year we would succeed because his team was a very good one.”
In the very next year, on July 18, 1980, the same team led by Kalam successfully launched Rohini RS-1 into the orbit.
In the time of failure, Dhawan had bravely gone up the stage to face the questioning crowd and took responsibility for the mission failure. But now when it was time to bask in the glory of success, he turned the mike towards Kalam. Such was the mentor and guru of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam- ISRO Chief Satish Dhawan.
The book is filled with gratification towards and inspiration from the various people Kalam came to encounter with. The first chapter itself talks about the importance of family, relatives and friends in helping achieve each other’s goals and turning dreams to reality. Such humility from such a great achiever truly amazed me.
Kalam was the embodiment of seeing failure as a pillar to success. To quote from the book- “When your hopes and dreams and goals are dashed, search among the wreckage, you may find a golden opportunity hidden in the ruins.” He gave a new definition to the word fail- First Attempt In Learning.
Apart from Kalam’s simple living and positive thinking that went on to become an inspiration for the youth of the country and abroad, the book demonstrates India’s technological achievements at a time, few nations can boast of. It articulates of some brilliant minds who worked behind Indian Space Research such as Vikram Sarabhai and Dr. Brahm Prakash.
It pushes the readers to never give up. “A big shot is a little shot who keeps on shooting. So keep trying,” says Kalam in the book.
His own life story is an example of the fact that nothing is impossible if one keeps working towards his goal relentlessly, no matter how big the obstacles are. When Kalam was a boy, his family’s financial conditions were far from good. His father owned a boat and earned his living by ferrying pilgrims between Rameswaram and Dhanuskodi. Kalam sold newspapers in order to help his family and walked 8 kilometres daily to reach school.
He taught us that Education is the key to success and kindness the key to happiness.
Once, Dr. Kalam was with the Defence Research and Development Organization and the team was discussing options to secure the perimeter of a building for protection. He immediately rejected the suggestion to put broken glass on the wall of the building because broken glass could be harmful to birds!
Another time, during a significant project, the workload was very high. One of the 70 scientists working on it asked him if he could leave at 5:30 that evening as he had promised to take his kids to an exhibition. Dr Kalam granted the permission. However, the scientist got busy with work only to realize that it was 8: 30 PM! When he looked for his boss, he wasn’t there. Guilty for having disappointed his kids, he went back home only to find that his kids weren’t there. When he asked his wife where they were, she replied- Don’t you know? You manager came here at 5:15 and took the children to the exhibition.