Former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam recalls a satellite launch to illustrate the meaning of failure and team management

Inspiration is perhaps the most potent fuel of human development, and one video clipping, though just three minutes in duration, gives a more than adequate dose of it. Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India, is speaking to an audience on how to manage failure, and he refers to a personal experience to illustrate it. This clip is found on YouTube. “The year was 1979… SLV 3. I was the project director, the mission director. My mission was to put the satellite in the orbit. Thousands of people worked nearly 10 years. I have reached Sriharikota and it is in the launch pad. 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. The computer was telling us not launch it now. I am the mission director, I have to take a decision,” says Dr. Kalam in the video as he recounts the incident with quite some drama and lets suspense build in less than a minute.

“Everything is on. Behind me there were six experts. They saw the database on the computer and they see the pictures on the screen and say there is a problem. The problem is that there is some leakage in the system, in the control system,” says Dr. Kalam, adding how the scientists went into immediate calculations to assure him that there was adequate fuel for the control system to function. The control system is that which controls the rocket to the acquired altitude. So his experts told him that he could still go ahead and launch the vehicle.

“Even though the experts gave their view and I acted upon it, the decision was mine. I took the decision,” says Dr. Kalam, emphasising the fact that the onus of responsibility lay on his shoulders and he was the one who decided that moment to overrule the computer warning and go ahead.

“I bypassed the computer and launched the system. This fellow went. There are four stages before the satellite is launched. The first stage went off well, and in the second stage it got mad. It went into a spin. Instead of putting the satellite in orbit, it put it into the Bay of Bengal,” says Dr. Kalam dramatically. “1979... It was a failure.”

“First time I faced failure… And how to manage failure? Success I can manage, but how to manage failure?” asks the former President charmingly.

“At that time a great man, a great leader, professor Satish Dhawan, comes to me. I am very tired, having worked day and night for several months. He wakes me up and says, ‘Come, let us go to a press conference.’ The press is waiting there — many people, photographers, this and that.” Dr. Kalam goes on to describe the scene that created tension in the pit of his stomach. “I was highly frightened. I thought I would be the culprit for I had failed as the project director, the mission director,” he confesses.

“At that time, Satish Dhawan, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation, said, ‘Dear friends, we have failed today. I want to support my technologists, my scientists, my staff, so that next year they succeed.’ So he took the whole blame on himself. They criticised him saying, ‘You have put so many crores into the Bay of Bengal.’ He took all the blame and assured them that next year we would succeed because his team was a very good one. Next year, and here only the interesting thing happened, next year on the 18th of July, 1980, when we succeeded, professor Dhawan said, ‘You go and conduct the press conference.’ Do you follow what this means? It means that in failure, the leader took it up. When success came he gives it to his team.”

So, says Dr. Kalam, this incident should be remembered by everyone for it teaches the basic lesson of how to manage failure and a team.