‘Rocket Woman’ propels India’s missile mission

New Delhi : Forget breaking the glass ceiling, Tessy Thomas has virtually blasted her way through it. The 48-year-old is the first-ever woman director of an Indian missile project and is set to place India in an elite club of nations like the US, Russia and China with the capability to produce their own long-range Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

She will achieve that when India tests its 5,000-km range nuclear capable Agni-V missile by February 2012.

Thomas also wants to see Indian women taking on combat roles in the armed forces.

“Why not? If they are performing other roles in the armed forces so efficiently, they can also perform combat roles,” Thomas said during a chat here.

“If women are willing to get into combat roles, I think, yes, they should be allowed to join. This, I am sure, will happen over time,” said the ‘Agni Putri’ (Daughter of Fire), a sobriquet she had earned for her association with the Agni missiles since 1988.

The scientist from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was in Delhi after her team had successfully tested the new-generation Agni-IV missile Nov 15 that broke new records for India by hitting a target 3,000 km away from the Balasore test range in the Orissa coast.

This is the first time ever the country has tested a missile to hit target at that distance, thereby becoming the first Indian missile to cross the equator and hit a target in the southern hemisphere.

For her achievement in missile technology, she is also fondly called ‘the missile woman’ by the Indian media.

When asked how she landed in the male-dominated defence research and development world, she promptly replies: “Science has no gender. Defence R&D is a knowledge-based field.”

Armed with an engineering degree, Thomas joined the DRDO and was assigned to work on the Agni missile project by none other than former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who is also known as the ‘Father of Indian Missile Programme’.

She also has a masters in guided missiles technology.

She did her B.Tech from the Thrissur Engineering College at Kozhikode and M.Tech from Pune-based Defence Institute of Advanced Technologies. She was then selected for ‘guided-weapon course’ being offered by DRDO and soon after, her saga with the Indian missile programme began.

Since 1988, she has worked on Agni-series missiles and is also the strength behind the 2,000-km range Agni-II and 3,500-km range Agni-III missiles and has been the project director of these missile programmes, contributing to the guidance designs. During her initial years in the DRDO, she also worked on the 900-km range Agni-I missile.

Her inspiration?

“Of course, Kalam sir. He was the director of the lab I joined first and he was the one who assigned me to the Agni project.”

Now at the helm of the Agni-V project, she supervises a work force that comprises five other women scientists. The entire Agni programme of DRDO has about 20 women among 250 scientists working on the missile systems.

Thomas, who works at the Missile Complex of DRDO in Hyderabad, first became project director of an Agni system in 2008, when she was asked to head the Agni-II.

In July 2009, she was appointed the project director for the Agni-V programme.

Last December, when Agni-II Prime (it was how Agni-IV was earlier known) plunged into the Bay of Bengal just 30 seconds after launch during its first-ever test, Thomas was disappointed.

“The first flight was a failure, though I won’t call it a total failure. We could record the first 30 second data for analysis of some systems,” she said.

But the second flight Nov 15 as Agni-IV was a grand success.

“We had an excellent launch. It is a tremendous feeling to prove all the systems in one shot. We have data on all stages of the flight and systems. We proved the whole system, most of which are indigenous,” Thomas told IANS.

What next? Wait for Agni-V, Thomas signs off.

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