Tessy Thomas, scientist with the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the first woman to head a missile project in India, says that the successful launch of Agni V was one of the happiest moments in her life

The euphoria surrounding Tessy Thomas has not yet died down. She knows that monikers such as ‘Missile Woman’ and ‘Agniputhri’ will forever be associated with her, courtesy her stints with the Agni missile missions – as associate project director (mission) of Agni I, II and III, project director of Agni IV and project director (mission) of Agni V. “I am happy with those names as long as people use them as a mark of affection!” says Tessy, breaking into a hearty laugh over the phone from Hyderabad, where she is a scientist with Advanced Systems Laboratory, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

The toast of the media, especially after the successful test launch of Agni V in April this year, Tessy is all humility, when she says, “I’m an ordinary woman who did her job. I have no secrets to share with readers. In fact, now people know everything about me!” That she is a huge fan of Hindi serials, a foodie for whom cooking is a stressbuster, her famous prawn curry, her anxiety over her fitness and how she misses those good old days when she shone on the badminton court as well as on the track… is all over cyberspace.

However, now it is work, work and more work. Her lab is working on the Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology, wherein the missiles can be equipped with several warheads. “After touching 5,000 km range with Agni V, we are working on the MIRV technology,” she says. The thrill of having successfully tested Agni V is still fresh in her thoughts. “It was a great feeling…it has been one of the happiest moments,” she says.

Did she dream about all this at all? “Maybe this technology was somewhere at the back of my mind. A visit to the rocket launching station in Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram while in school definitely was an inspiration. Science and maths were my favourite subjects in school and I wanted to be an engineer. Above all, there was always an interest in doing something new. That is a reason why I opted for radar systems as my elective subject while doing B.Tech in Thrissur. It has its applications in the defence sector. Only a handful of us had opted for the subject and since there were no faculty member at our college to teach the subject, a professor came from Thiruvananthapuram to teach us,” she recalls.

An M.Tech in Guided Missile from the Institute of Armament Technology, Pune (now known as the Defence Institute of Advanced Technology) followed after which she was absorbed into the DRDO. Her specialisation, missile guidance technology, paved the way to her work in the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, conceptualised by none other than A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

Naturally, her family was quite surprised, especially her mother, Kunjamma, by her choice. “We are half a dozen in the family – five girls and one boy. I’m the fourth one. All of them were puzzled when I chose this field since it was something new for the whole family. Of course, my father (late T.J.Thomas) was very enthusiastic and encouraged me a lot. My mother used to ask, ‘What kind of job are you going to do?’” she says.

Several decades later, Tessy is buoyed by the fact that more and more women are entering the field of missile technology.

“There was just a handful of women when I joined. But now 15 to 20 per cent of the staff members as women. There are jobs that follow specific work schedules. But, when you are working on a project, the work demands a lot. It is not a task that can be left in between. That is when the support of your family counts the most. And I can’t thank enough my husband, Saroj Kumar Patel, an officer in the Indian Navy, who has a similar background as mine. My son, Tejas, too has been totally accommodating,” she says, adding: “However, I am alone at home now. My husband’s current posting is in Mumbai. Tejas has just got his first job in Chennai.”

The conversation would be incomplete without talking about Abdul Kalam. “When I joined DRDO, he was the director of the lab. It was he who brought in the review mechanism into the system. That culture still continues. He has been an inspiration always…,” Tessy signs off.

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