DRDO's Missile Woman
Tessy Thomas,Distinguished Scientist and Director General, Aeronautical Systems, DRDO
In the 1970s and 80s, bright and studious girls from well-to-do middle- and upper-class Christian families in Kerala aspired to become doctors, teachers or IAS officers. But dreams were different for Tessy Thomas, daughter of an accountant with a private firm. Her mother, a qualified teacher, was a homemaker. From the school grounds of Thathampally L.P. and St. Joseph's Girls in Alleppey, Thomas would gaze in amazement at aeroplanes flying to and fro from the Thiruvananthapuram airport, and also at rockets shooting up from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)'s Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) near Thiruvananthapuram.
Dreams finally came true. Years later, the school girl went on to make the most advanced missiles in the world with in-house technologies. A 33-year-long career at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has seen Thomas begin her career as a young sub-system designer at the agency's Hyderabad laboratory and rising through the ranks to become the mission director, indigenously developing, testing and inducting the Agni I-V series of missile systems into defence systems. Now, she has an even larger role to execute as director general of Aeronautical Systems, DRDO.
After school, Thomas went on to pursue B.Tech in electrical engineering from Calicut University, which included subjects such as radar systems in military applications. For Masters, she was selected among the 10 students for the DRDO-sponsored MTech programme in guided missiles at the Institute of Armament Technology (now Defence Institute of Advanced Technology) in Pune. She completed her PhD in Missile Guidance from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University (JNTU), Hyderabad and MBA in Operations Management from Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi. Later in her career, she was conferred with at least eight honorary doctorates in science, including from IIT, Kanpur, in 2019.
After her Masters, Thomas joined the Institute of Armament Technology (IAT), Pune, as a faculty member in Guided Missiles in 1986 and after two years, joined DRDL, Hyderabad, where Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was the lab director. Impressed with Thomas' credentials, Dr. Kalam asked her to join a team of 50 scientists working on inertial navigation [a navigation technique in which measurements provided by accelerometers and gyroscopes are used to track the position of an object] for Agni-guided missiles. "That is how I got into the world of missiles," says Thomas. "As Dr. Kalam said, missiles are not weapons of destruction, missiles are weapons of peace. Strength respects Strength."
She was associated with the Agni programme right from its developmental flights. "During those days, I used to work for 12 hours and beyond," she recalls. The turning point in her career was designing the guidance scheme for long-range missile systems used in all Agni missiles — The missiles have to go beyond the atmosphere and re-enter again at very high speeds, generating heat beyond 3,000 degree celsius. However, no country was ready to provide the technology. Thomas spearheaded the team to develop an energy management guidance scheme, the first time in the country, for a long-range system.
In her 32 years with Agni missiles, Thomas has contributed in various areas, including guidance, control, inertial navigation, trajectory simulation and mission design. She became the project director for Agni-IV, and developed many state-of-art systems with new technologies, indigenously, for the first time. Soon she was elevated as project director, mission, for the long-range Agni-V system, which was successfully flight tested. She later went on to become the director of Advanced Systems Laboratory, DRDO, and led the development of strategic missile systems from 2014 to 2018, among other roles. Since then she has been director general, Aeronautical Systems, DRDO. "I learnt from my superiors, read and studied whatever is available in books and the digital world to find solutions."
"The biggest challenge in Agni missiles was that no country was ready to give us technology and we had to develop everything in-house, including the composite motor casing, re-entry vehicle structures etc," says Thomas. The first Agni-3 flight was a failure — the system worked fine for 70 seconds and then lost control. "It happens with new technologies when we are experimenting for the first time. I will term it as partial success and our first attempt to learn about the system," she says, adding 100 plus scientists worked over for one year to bridge the technology gap and attain success. Over 1000-plus scientists work over three-four years for a successful development flight.
Now Thomas is responsible for all aeronautical systems, including manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, lighter than air systems, aero engines, early warning airborne systems and subsonic cruise missiles. India has 70-80% self reliance in technologies needed for defence and one area that requires improvement is electronic fabrication, she says.
In her pastime, she watches her favourite TV shows, and does gardening and cooking.
Thomas is also an inspiration for numerous girls in India. When she joined DRDO in 1988, there were just three or four women working in the entire organisation. Today, about 15-18% of DRDO's employees are women, many of them being technology and team leaders. "Working as a scientist, I always say science has no gender. It is the knowledge and technical expertise that matters and if you are willing to learn, women can excel and succeed in this field," says Thomas.
Her dream is to see India emerging as a technological hub and achieve self-reliance through science. "With policy initiatives, academia-industry-government collaborations and the way the young generation is learning and working towards it, I am sure we will achieve it."
And she is in no mood to relax. "A scientist never relaxes or retires. Even in sleep we may be thinking of a solution for the next day and that is how our mind works", she concludes.