When she’s not working on missile technology inside a Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) laboratory in Hyderabad, you might find Tessy Thomas pan-frying fish fillets.
But don’t be deceived by her homely avatar. The 45-year-old missile scientist recently helped India establish minimum deterrence against China with the 3,500-km range Agni-III ballistic missile.
Tessy shot into the limelight this May, when the Ministry of Defence revealed that she was the associate project director for the nuclear-capable Agni-III missile —the only one in the Indian arsenal that can strike targets deep inside China.
The only one
But the small-town girl from Alappuzha, Kerala, had had her eye on the prize for 20 years, as she struggled to reach her commanding position in the DRDO and accomplish what no woman scientist has in the research organisation’s 50-year history.
Captivated by the science behind rocketry, missiles and space flight since she was a little girl, Tessy spent her entire childhood dreaming of breaking into the male bastion of missile science.
“What fed my curiosity about rocket science was that I grew up close to the Thumba rocket launching station. I hadn’t a shred of doubt about what I wanted to achieve,” she told Hindustan Times from the Hyderabad-based Advanced Systems Laboratory.
Tessy joined the DRDO in 1988 and has since been involved in the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme. Her journey to the top has been punctuated by a series of spectacular triumphs and failures, but Tessy says she always kept her eye on the doughnut, not the hole.
Colleagues say her knowledge, ideas and stability of thought make her stand out from the rest.
Tessy admits she was disappointed when Agni-III missed its target and crashed into the Bay of Bengal on July 9, 2006, but insists she was not fazed.
“We relished the challenging learning curve as we went about analysing the reasons for the failure,” she said. “The missile has been launched successfully twice after the problem was identified and fixed. It’s a tough job, but I am up to the challenge.”
Tessy’s love for missiles helped her find love in life. She met husband Saroj Kumar, now a commodore in the Indian Navy, at the Defence Institute of Advanced Technology, Pune, where both studied guided missiles.
“We developed an incipient liking for each other. Our parents did the rest. It wasn’t a typical college romance, but two mature individuals making a choice,” she said.
Separation has been the only constant in their marriage. Shifting base every two years, Commodore Kumar was hardly around when son Tejas, now studying engineering at Vellore, was growing up.
Joys of life
Thankfully, he has now been posted at Hyderabad and the missile lovers are rediscovering the small joys of life. After a six-year gap, Tessy finally has company for her 5 am walks, and a partner for her badminton matches on Sunday.
Most of all, she once again has someone to cook for.
“Missiles never make it to the dinner table. We don’t bring work home. I enjoy cooking and we are more than happy talking about how the curry tastes,” said Tessy.