For India’s ‘missile woman’, it is all about rocket science(Feature)

May 13th, 2008 - 10:05 am ICT by admin  

By Ritu Sharma
New Delhi, May 13 (IANS) She has been dubbed India’s ‘missile woman’, one in the team of India’s elite scientists behind the Agni III, India’s longest-range nuclear capable missile that can hit targets up to 3,000 km. But then Tessy Thomas is not called ‘Agni Putri’, or daughter of fire, for nothing. When photographs of jubilant Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) scientists appeared after the May 7 launch of Agni III, Tessy was the subject of many a question. But the 45-year-old associate project director of Agni missiles takes the curiosity in her stride. What matters is that her gender is not called into question at her workplace.

“Here, I am considered as a scientist and not a woman. But it has to be taken into account that the job with DRDO comes with a responsibility; it is for one who can understand the criticality of the work,” the woman from Alleppey in Kerala said.

“It was the determination of my mother that kept me going. My M.Tech degree in Guided Missiles gave me an upper hand. Also I joined under Dr. A.P.J. Kalam and have worked under seniors who always encouraged me.

“When I joined DRDO, there were only four-five women. Now there are about 20-30 women in a lab of 250 scientists. It is a good improvement,” Tessy told IANS.

She remembers the early days when she joined DRDO (then known as Defence Research and Development Lab) in 1988. Then she soon got associated with the ambitious project of developing Agni.

“There were about seven women scientists when Agni-III was test fired from Wheelers Island (in Orissa) last week and I was amongst them. We just wanted to prove to the world that nothing was wrong with the missile system as was said after the first test which failed,” Tessy said with a glint of determination in her eyes.

The first test in 2006 had failed when shortly after lift-off, the missile dived into the Bay of Bengal.

Like all women, Tessy also does the tightrope walk between home and career, between being a mother and a scientist fiercely dedicated to her job.

When Tessy reached Wheelers Island for the launch of Agni-III on April 28, she left behind in Hyderabad son Tejas, who was to appear for his Class 12 exam and was running high temperature.

“I came to the Island on April 28 and was there till May 7 when the missile was fired. I was under pressure from all sides, but my son was very cooperative. He does not complain at all,” said Tessy, whose husband is a navy officer posted in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh.

Like many other working women, Tessy starts her day early. “My day starts at 4 a.m. when my son gets ready for his coaching and ends after midnight. It is hectic but I try to help my son in studies especially physics.”

She would like other women to take up science at the school level and go on to become researchers and scientists - and shore up the forces of the DRDO, India’s premier military research organisation.

Tessy is aware of the market forces with many corporate houses attracting DRDO scientists by giving exorbitant salaries. But she is dedicated to the DRDO.

“It really pinches to see that in the private sector people are getting four to five times what you are getting. But I am doing the job in the national interest and I cannot be forced to stop working in that direction,” Tessy explained.

According to the defence ministry, a total of 1,107 scientists, mostly young entrants, have resigned from the DRDO between 2003 and 2007, an average of one person leaving every two days.

For this woman, it is truly all about rocket science.

(Ritu Sharma can be contacted at

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