She could have been an IAS officer; she even wrote the exam. But an interview with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) happened. She got through and was asked to join immediately. Today, she is hailed as the ‘Missile Woman of India’ and ‘Agniputri ‘(one born of fire) after the deadly projectiles she has helped develop. Tessy Thomas has played key roles in many nuclear projects of India, particularly in the making of its long-range nuclear-capable ballistic missile, the Agni-V.
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Born in Kerala’s beautiful Allapuzha district to an IFS officer father and homemaker mother, Tessy’s first introduction to the amazing world of missiles came in her childhood, thanks to the Thumba rocket launching station that was not far from the area where her family lived. This exposure sparked her imagination and a passion for scientific research that would only grow stronger with time. Carefully nurtured by her mother, Tessy’s interest in solid state physics took shape during her school days. After completing her engineering from Thrissur college, Tessy (named after Mother Teresa) chose to do what she had always dreamt of doing — pursue research in the field of missile technology.At the age of 20, she joined Pune’s Institute of Armament Technology to pursue a masters degree in guided missile technology. It was there the budding scientist met her future husband, Saroj Kumar Patel, now a commodore in the Indian Navy. Tessy followed this up with an MBA in Operations Management and a PhD in Missile Guidance before joining DRDO in 1988. Here, she worked under her revered role model, APJ Abdul Kalam, who placed her in the Agni missile programme. And there has been no looking back for her ever since.Tessy was associate project director of the 3,000 km range Agni-III missile project. She was the project director for mission Agni-IV which was successfully tested in 2011. Tessy was appointed as the Project Director for 5,000 km range Agni-V in 2009 and is based The missile was successfully tested on 19 April 2012. In January 2012, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Indian Science Congress that Mrs Thomas is an example of a “woman making her mark in a traditionally male bastion and decisively breaking the glass ceiling”. The media loves to call her Agniputri or one born of fire, after the missiles she has helped develop. All this while Tessy tried her best to walk the tight-rope as a homemaker and a defence scientist. Immensely dedicated to her work, she never hesitated to make sacrifices on the home front, at times even leaving her unwell son Tejas behind for a missile launch. In several interviews, she has thanked her parents, in-laws, husband and son for their unconditional support and encouragement, be it in her inter-religious marriage or her missile research. And yes, her son Tejas shares his name with India’s first homegrown Light Combat Aircraft (also developed by DRDO). Actually, its an anagram of his mother and father’s names. Today, Tessy is one of India’s leading experts in ballistic missiles. Tessy has also received several prestigious awards — including the DRDO Scientist of the year in 2008, DRDO Performance Excellence Award for 2011 and 2012, India Today Women of the year in 2009, Lal Babadur Shastri National Award for her outstanding contribution to making India self-reliant in the field of missile technology. Tessy Thomas was awarded D.Sc (Honoris causa) by ITM University, Gwalior in 2016.
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