When scientist Nambi Narayanan saved Dr APJ Abdul Kalam's life at an ISRO lab

Written By: Sidharth MP Edited By: Nikhil Pandey WION
CHENNAI Published: Jul 27, 2021, 04:22 PM(IST)

Former President of India Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and former ISRO scientist S Nambi Narayanan Photograph:( Twitter )

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Within a second, Nambi Narayanan leapt across and pushed Kalam down to safety, before a blast rocked the room and glass splinters flew all across. After the smoke had settled, Kalam sat up and told Nambi, "See, it fired". This was how the young duo proved that Able and Noble were right and also that gunpowder would fire at normal pressure. 

India remembers its People’s President and veteran scientist Dr APJ Abdul Kalam on his sixth death anniversary.

For a large number of Indians, Dr Kalam is known as a fisherman’s son-turned-scientist, who rose to the top post.

Fondly remembered as the ‘Missile Man’, Kalam worked for the Indian Government’s aerospace and defence establishments.

But this very ‘Missile Man’ Kalam had a narrow miss from an explosion, during his days as a young scientist with the fledgling Indian Space Research Organization.

This and much more is revealed in veteran ISRO Scientist Padma Bhushan Nambi Narayanan’s autobiography- 'Ready To Fire'. 

Watch | WION Gravitas: Who is Nambi Narayanan? All you need to know

Cut to 1967, ISRO (then known as INCOSPAR) was in its nascent stage and operated out of a small church in the Thumba Fishing hamlet, in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram.

Most of the scientists working there were young graduates with a drive to experiment and learn as much as they could about a new discipline - Rocket science.

All they had were experimental rockets (known as sounding rockets) that were fired to an altitude of 100kms or less.

Most of these sounding rockets were offered by friendly foreign countries to conduct upper-atmospheric experiments.

For perspective, the sounding rockets of that era are a molehill when compared to the mountains (the PSLV and GSLV series) that ISRO launches today. 

While preparing for the launch of one such French Centaure rocket, a gunpowder-based igniter was being made by an ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan.

Once at the right altitude, the igniter would trigger a small explosion and release the rocket’s chemical payload into the atmosphere, thus helping conduct the experiment.

However, one day before the launch, Narayanan came across a scientific principle that their gunpowder would not fire at the height of 100km.

When Narayanan apprised Kalam of the same, he initially refused to accept it. But later, on Narayanan’s persuasion, the duo went on to test the theory. 

The duo set up a contraption where a sealed jar of gunpowder was connected to a vacuum pump (to create upper atmosphere-like thin air and low pressure). Multiple attempts were made to ignite it, but the 1942 theory by scientists Able and Noble was dead right!

Wanting to see up-close, this phenomenon of gunpowder behaving in an inert manner, a young Kalam poked his nose into the gunpowder-laden jar. The countdown had started and the assistant was ready to ignite the gunpowder, but that’s when Nambi Narayanan realized that the vacuum pump was not properly connected to the jar.

This meant that the gunpowder would explode as usual.

Within a second, Nambi Narayanan leapt across and pushed Kalam down to safety, before a blast rocked the room and glass splinters flew all across. After the smoke had settled, Kalam sat up and told Nambi, "See, it fired". This was how the young duo proved that Able and Noble were right and also that gunpowder would fire at normal pressure. 

While Abdul Kalam later went on to work in various roles in ISRO, DRDO, and other government organizations, Nambi Narayanan went on to become the Father of Liquid Propulsion Rocket Engine Technology in India.

Narayanan and his team had developed the Vikas Engine (which was based on the French Viking engine)-a pioneering piece of technology that is still a crucial part of the PSLV and GSLV rockets even today.

It is noteworthy that Kalam was a proponent of solid-propulsion (using solid fuels) whereas Nambi Narayanan was a proponent of liquid-propellant rockets. Nambi always believed that India had to focus on liquid propulsion, in order to build heavy-lift capability rockets.

Eventually, Nambi’s expertise and foresight in liquid propulsion proved right and gave birth to India’s PSLV and GSLV rockets, whereas Kalam’s expertise in solid propulsion gave India its arsenal of missiles.

Nambi Narayanan was heading India’s Cryogenic engine development programme in 1994 when he was wrongly jailed and tortured by the Kerala Police and Intelligence bureau.

This was a fabricated spy case, known as the ISRO spy case. The Supreme Court of India had cleared Nambi of all charges and the government of India had awarded him the Padma Bhushan. The investigation into a larger conspiracy by the Kerala Police (during the then Congress-led Govt) and Intelligence Bureau officials is underway today.

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