Dr. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (1931-2015) was a scientist, aeronautical engineer, writer, and the 11th President of India, serving from 2002-2007. During his decorated 40-year scientific career, Kalam pioneered India’s space, missile and nuclear programs, earning him the nickname “Missile man of India”. Some of the posts he held include director of India’s first satellite launch vehicle, chief of the guided missile development program and chief scientific advisor to the Prime Minister.

Throughout his career as a scientist, one of Kalam’s goals was to inspire and motivate the youth of India to get excited about science and knowledge. For instance, after his position as chief scientific advisor ended in 1999, Kalam announced he would personally meet at least 100,000 students in a two year period to help spread the word of science. Kalam’s fame grew even more during this time, as his first autobiography Wings of Fire was released (the quote used in the comic is taken from the book). In it, Kalam recounted how a poor country boy from the small town of Rameswaram went on to study physics, work his way through the ranks of the Defence Research and Development Organisation and then the Indian Space Research Organisation, visit NASA and the Goddard Space Flight Centre in the United States during the height of the space race, play a large part in India’s technological advancement and become India’s most-famous scientist. All of this BEFORE Kalam became the President of India in 2002, in which he gained another nickname, the “people’s president” for continuing to connect with the youth of India and allowing the public to visit the presidential palace in New Delhi.

It’s crazy to think that Kalam didn’t even want to be a scientist, he just wanted to fly. Dreaming of becoming a pilot, Kalam studied aeronautical engineering at the Madras Institute of Technology: “What fascinated me the most at MIT was the sight of two decommissioned aircraft displayed there. I felt a strange attraction towards them, and would sit near them long after other students had gone back to the hostel, admiring man’s will to fly free in the sky, like a bird. … The goal was very clear in my mind, I was going to fly aircraft. I was convinced of this.” After graduating, Kalam landed two job interviews. One was for his dream gig of joining the Air Force, the other a technical role at the Ministry of Defence. At the selection board, only the best eight candidates out of 25 would be selected to join the Air Force. Kalam finished 9th. He was devastated, but picked himself up and accepted the new path of his life and went to work for the Ministry of Defence. Turned out to be a pretty good Plan B.

Kalam was a deeply spiritual man and practised what he preached, shunning material possessions and rewards. The only material goods Kalam coveted were books, owning over 2500 of them. His only other possessions were a watch, six shirts, four pants, three suits and a pair of shoes. He did not own any property, a fridge, TV, car or air conditioner. From Kalam’s former media advisor, “He would never accept a gift, save a book, and whenever somebody brought him a packed gift and tried to pass it off as a book, he insisted on examining what was inside. Anything other than the book was politely returned.”

Kalam died last month after suffering a heart attack while giving a speech titled “Creating a liveable planet Earth”. Over 350,000 people attended his funeral in his home town of Rameswaram.

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– Sigh, if only more great scientists would become politicians the world might be a better place. Fun fact – the most famous scientist of them all, Albert Einstein, was asked to be the President of Israel in 1952. He humbly declined.
– Thanks to the many readers who suggested I do a quote from Kalam.
– CREDIT: This comic, based on the passage from the book Wings of Fire, An Autobiography, A P J Abdul Kalam with Arun Tiwari, is published with the permission of Universities Press (India) Private Limited.