Molière, a French actor and playwright widely regarded as the finest practitioner of French comic theatre, once said, “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”
The life of Tessy Thomas, also known as India’s “Agniputri” or the “Missile Woman of India,” is encapsulated in this single line. This feisty woman has faced countless obstacles that threatened to stifle her ambitions, but her determination and focus ultimately triumphed, allowing her to achieve greatness and accomplish remarkable feats.
India’s Missile Woman, Dr. Tessy Thomas, is a fascinating figure. The self-made missile engineer overcame hurdles faced by other women in her field to rise from her modest beginnings in Kerala. At 25, with only an undergraduate degree (in electronics) and some internship experience, The DRDO selected Tessy Thomas to lead and gave her the freedom where Tessy Thomas designed which missile program.: Agni V.
At 13, Tessy Thomas was confronted with her first real challenge when her father had a stroke that left him permanently paralyzed. This was one of the earliest curveballs that life had thrown at her. With her father being bedridden, Tessy’s mother took charge of the household and worked hard towards ensuring that everyone in the family was taken good care of. Despite this, the Thomas family was in a dire strait. However, Tessy never let this traumatic event at home deter her from pursuing her dreams. And, with a supportive family, she could make sure to materialize her dreams.
Tessy Thomas faced her next challenge after completing high school with 100 percent in math and over 95 percent in science. She wanted to go to college for engineering but unfortunately could not afford it. However, she managed to attend the Government Engineering College in Thrissur with the help of a monthly loan of 100 Indian rupees from the State Bank of India. Tessy Thomas was awarded a generous scholarship to cover her college expenses because of her outstanding academic performance. She planned to continue her education with the money. So, she applied and received a loan from the bank to pursue the scholarship.
There is a widespread belief that, in times of financial crisis, one should accept any job, regardless of how low the pay may be. A similar opportunity was presented to Tessy Thomas when her brother-in-law, who worked as CFO at a software company, offered her a job there for her to take up. But highly driven by her determination to become a missile scientist, she politely turned down the offer in favor of a doctoral study in guidance missiles at the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO).
When the former Indian president Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam appointed Tessy Thomas as the associate project director for a very ambitious DRDO project, she knew she was on the cusp of achieving her lifelong goal. The goal of the Agni project was to develop new generations of ballistic missiles. She was a veteran project manager and was asked to direct the Agni V missile program after successfully leading the Agni III and Agni IV programs. After its successful test, she was promoted to DRDO’s top position in charge of the organization’s aeronautical systems. Tessy Thomas has received honors and awards for her work in the field of science and missile technology, the highest of which is the Padma Shri conferred upon her by the government of India. She has also been awarded the National Technology Awards in 2007 and 2008, the NASA Group Achievement Award in 2010 and 2011, the ISRO Team Award, and the Young Women Achievers Award from Junior Chamber International.
Dr. Tessy Thomas is one of the world’s most prominent figures in science and missile technology. She is one of the few women to receive an honorary doctorate in engineering from MIT after her thirty years of work on missiles. She has spent the better three decades of her life conducting research and development at the HQ Integrated Test Range (HQ ITR) in Chandipur, Orissa, responsible for carrying out ballistic missile test flights and associated activities. She is also respected for championing the cause of women’s empowerment in the country.
In 1988, she became the Technical Director at HQITR, where she led the establishment of a formidable team responsible for designing and producing ballistic missiles for the Indian military. The Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) oversees all national missile programs, and Tessy Thomas has been working there as the Controller for Ballistic Missile Flight Test Programs since 1996.
Tessy Thomas’s journey from obscurity to fame as India’s “Missile Woman” was fraught with difficulties and tribulations because of the unnumbered challenges in her path. Despite this, she was adamant in her conviction that she would always fight for what she believed in and wouldn’t let anyone’s ridicule stop her from reaching for the stars. She took all the hardships and professional setbacks that she suffered right from a very young age and turned them into opportunities to learn and grow, ultimately boosting her self-belief, refining her abilities, and perfecting her method of operation.
Tessy Thomas’s primary motivation for becoming a missile scientist has always been her insatiable curiosity. Women like Tessy, who are trying to build a career in any field, be it in science and technology or other, should not only dream big but also pursue it despite deterrents believing the fact that a woman is capable of making all her dreams come true. She is equal in society, and her dreams and aspirations are just as important as a man’s.