Tessy Thomas, the chief scientist of the Indian missile project Agni V, attends a meeting with the media in New Delhi on Friday. Image Credit: EPA

Hyderabad After years of hard work culminating in the successful launch of India's first inter-continental ballistic missile, Agni-5, Dr Tessy Thomas, the country's missile woman, is now basking in the glory of national and international recognition for spearheading the project.

Dr Thomas, also known as ‘Agniputri', is the project director of the nuclear-capable 5000-kilometre long-range missile launched from Wheeler Island off the Odisha coast.

Rarity in male bastion

Born in Alappuzha in Kerala, Dr Thomas, 49, heads a team of more than 400 people, mostly men, at the Advanced Research Laboratory of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in Hyderabad.

Developing the technology for a multiple target, re-entry vehicle was the major contribution of Dr Thomas' team to the success of the long-range missile which has boosted India's defence capabilities vis-à-vis several major countries.

This was crucial because when a long-range inter-continental ballistic missile re-enters the atmosphere after travelling at a height of 600 kilometres, it has to withstand tremendous velocity and temperature of 3,000 degrees Celsius. That was the most crucial phase in the success of the Agni-5 missile on Thursday.

"We had an excellent mission, meeting all objectives from lift-off to impact," Dr Thomas said after the success of the mission sparked off celebrations on Wheeler Island. "Three stages of guidance which were new could meet the mission objectives fully," she said.

Dr Thomas is a rarity in a male-dominated defence research field, especially in cutting edge missile development programmes. She is among a handful of women who could find a place in the DRDO and create a niche for herself.

Engineering graduate

She said she was inspired to become a missile scientist after seeing the Thumba rocket launching station near her home. After completing her graduation in engineering from Thrissur in Kerala, she went to Pune and did her M.Tech in Guided Missile from the Institute of Armament Technology.

It was here she met her husband Saroj Kumar. While Kumar is a commodore in the Indian Navy, her son Tejas is also studying engineering. Her son shares his name with India's light combat aircraft, developed by the DRDO.

No gender bias

Dr Thomas, who joined the DRDO in 1988, said that being a woman had never come in the way of discharging her professional duties. "Gender bias has never been an issue," she said.

"For scientists, there is no gender discrimination" Dr Thomas, who was also associated with the successful Agni-III and Agni-IV projects, said.

However, it was not an easy path as she also had to contend with failures and disappointment. One such moment in July 2006 when a missile went out of control gave Dr Thomas the inspiration to further improve the technology. Thus, the idea of a re-entry vehicle was born. "It was a great learning experience," she added.