Ram Narain Agarwal is a noted Aerospace Engineer of India. He has significantly contributed towards the Agni series of surface-to-surface missiles.
He was born to a family of traders in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Agarwal has worked as Program Director (AGNI) and as Director Advanced Systems Laboratory of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
After 22 years helming the workhorse of India's nuclear arsenal, recognition comes to Agni's Programme Director R.N. Agarwal even as he prepares to hand over the torch. At first glance Ram Narain Agarwal hardly looks like a rocket scientist. "I could easily pass for a Marwari businessman if it wasn't for the laboratory," he jokes, alluding to his ancestry. Most of his family members are traders in Jaipur. But Agarwal was always fascinated by flying machines and opted for a masters degree in aeronautics engineering from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
It would give him the foundation to launch a career devoted to building the deadly Agni ballistic missile, the centrepiece of India's nuclear weapon arsenal. Working behind extra thick curtains of secrecy at the Defence Research and Development Organisation's (DRDO) key rocket laboratories in Hyderabad, much of Agarwal's contribution to India's missile development programme had to be kept under wraps. But recognition came recently when he was awarded this year's DRDO's Lifetime Achievement Award "for pioneering the development and establishment of long-range missiles systems".
R. Chidambaram, principal scientific adviser to the Union Government and former Atomic Energy Commission chief who had worked closely with Agarwal, says, "Building missiles is a complex scientific enterprise. Agarwal has pursued it with single-minded devotion and has done a marvellous job of it."
Since 1983, Agarwal has headed the Agni missile project, seeing it through the toughest period of development where he learnt that "failures are the hidden treasures of success". With no country, including India's then ally the Soviet Union, willing to share expertise or the technology to build ballistic missiles, Indian scientists like Agarwal would face an uphill task in mastering the rocketry involved. When the Agni project was initiated along with four other guided missiles, India had just become a member of the exclusive space club with a pencil thin satellite launcher called SLV-3, developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Built by a team headed by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, now President of India, SLV-3 could put a 40 kg satellite into orbit.
Agni's requirement was to carry a nuclear weapon weighing 25 times more than what SLV-3 could cart into space, calling for a massive upscaling of rocket technology. It was to be designed to carry warheads that could cause more damage than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. More importantly, since Agni was to be an IRBM (intermediate range ballistic missile), the scientists would have to master the complex technology of having the missile re-enter the earth's atmosphere. In doing so it would have to withstand fiery temperatures of over 3,000 degrees centigrade, enough to melt steel. It was done using internal Indian sources and sheer initiative to provide the country with a credible land-based deterrent." At 64, Agarwal has decided to call it quits. After 22 years of being at the helm, he is now handing over directorship of the Agni programme to Chander.
Agarwal says he wants to concentrate on other scientific pursuits. But it is apparent that there is still plenty of fire in his belly and the DRDO is unlikely to allow Agarwal to ride into the distance.