The action was all up there, but at 8.07 am on Thursday, when India’s first inter-continental ballistic missile tore into the overcast sky of Wheeler Island off the Odisha coast, all eyes were on one woman on the ground — chief scientist, Project Agni-V, Tessy Thomas.
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By the time HT got through to her mobile phone on Thursday evening, Thomas was already back in Hyderabad and celebrating with her colleagues at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) office in south Hyderabad.
“All the team work that has gone in for the last three years has given a fruitful result,” said the 49-year-old soft-spoken missile scientist who spearheaded the team that built Agni-V over a period of three years.
A Malayali from Alleppy in Kerala, Thomas grew up close to the Thumba rocket launching station, watching rocket launches and dreaming about them. “I was fascinated. That’s when I decided what I was going to do.”
And like a dream, a B Tech and an M Tech later, there she was joining the almost all-male DRDO ‘club’ in 1988.
Coming from a family of five daughters and one son, Thomas found herself in a work scenario where the gender ratio was just the opposite. And this where her “egalitarian upbringing” came in handy. Thomas says she always considered herself a “scientist”, and not a woman.
In the years that followed not for nothing did she come to be known as Agniputri or one born of of fire. This favourite pupil of former President and ‘missile man’ APJ Abdul Kalam became the first woman scientist in the country to head a missile programme and has been associated with the Agni projects (III and IV) for the past two decades.
"It’s a very challenging job,” she says. And one major challenge has been striking a balance between a successful career and a regular family life. For many years Thomas has had to stay away her husband Saroj Kumar, a commodore in the Indian Navy, who she met during her M Tech in Pune.
Perhaps by way of consolation she named their son, an engineering student, Tejas after India’s light combat fighter.Fire power: Why Agni V is important for India