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The woman behind the success of Agni-V

Last updated on: April 20, 2012 21:21 IST

Breaking the glass ceiling to enter a field dominated by men, Tessy Thomas has had to walk the tightrope as a defence scientist and homemaker to achieve what very few women have. Mohammed Siddique reports

Tessy Thomas is an extraordinary woman; she is a homemaker as well as a "missile maker". Known to the country and the world as "Missile Woman" and "Agniputri", this lady is one of the main brains behind the new missile, whose stupendous success has propelled India into the elite group of five countries with the capability to launch a nuclear ballistic missile from a long range of over 5000 km.

Born in Allapuzha, Kerala, Tessy's first introduction to the amazing world of flying objects and the radars came in her childhood, thanks to the rocket launching station not far from the area where her lower-middle class family lived.

This was sufficient to spark a thousand dreams in her little mind and after completing her engineering from Thrissur college, it was natural for her to choose research in the field of missile technology.

Traveling for the first time out of Kerala at the age of 20, Tessy Thomas, named so after Mother Teresa, went to Pune's Institute of Armament Technology to do her M Tech in guided missile technology.

It took her a little more than two decades from then to reach the pinnacle of her career where she is being showered with praises for her key contribution to the thundering success of the Agni-V missile launch on Thursday from Wheeler Island off Odisha.

Though she broke the glass ceiling to enter a field till then dominated by men, Tessy Thomas does not appear to be too conscious of her gender identity. "Gender bias or discrimination has never been an issue. Science is science," she said with candour.

After completion of her masters degree in Pune, where she also met her future husband Saroj Kumar, Tessy chose DRDO and she was not disappointed.

Soon after she had applied to DRDO, she received a call from the premier defence research institution based in Hyderabad asking her to join immediately. "I wanted to take a break for some time but I could not and I have still not got it," she says with a smile.

Working tirelessly, conquering one area after the other and making path breaking contributions in her research in guided missiles, Tessy Thomas emerged as one of the key brains in the secretive missile program.

Before becoming the head of Agni-V missile, Tessy also worked as the project director, Agni-III and Agni-IV missiles and made her mark.

Development of the key technology for multiple targetable re-entry vehicle was a major and decisive contribution of Tessy's team to the success of the long range missile that has given a boost to the strategic defence capabilities of India vis-à-vis several major countries, especially its big neighbour China.

This was crucial because when the long range intercontinental ballistic missile re-enters the atmosphere after travelling at a height of 600 km, it has to withstand tremendous velocity and temperature of 3,000 degrees Celsius. That was the most crucial phase in the success of the Agni-5 missile on Thursday.

"We had an excellent mission, meeting all the objectives from the lift off to the impact," said Tessy after the success of the mission sparked off celebrations on Wheeler Island. "Three stages of guidance which were new could meet the mission objectives fully," she said.

Not that Tessy was always greeted by success at every step, but the failures and the disappointments also became a challenge and opportunity for her to improve. One such challenge came when in July 2006 a missile went out of control and there was criticism. But showing steely nerves, she took it as a challenge and in just ten months the failure was turned in to another success.

While fully devoted to her work, Tessy had to make many sacrifices on the home front and even had to leave an unwell son Tejas behind for one of the launches of the missile. Interestingly, her son shares the name with India's light combat aircraft, developed by the DRDO. Peers say she had to do a tight rope walk in the dual role as a defence scientist and a homemaker.

One of the biggest accolades for Tessy came from none other than the prime minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh, when he told the Indian Science Congress in January this year, "Ms Thomas is an example of a woman making her mark in a traditionally male bastion and decisively breaking the glass ceiling". 

Mohammed Siddique in Hyderabad