A nostalgic Interview with Missile Women of India – Dr. TESSY THOMAS, DG AERONAUTICAL SYSTEMS - DRDO

How did your professional journey begin? What sparked your dream of working in this prestigious field?

From school days onwards, I was interested in mathematics and science. I was fascinated by activities of the Thumba Rocket Launching Station and was also astonished by seeing aircraft flying so high. This exposure sparked my imagination and a passion towards scientific research. Learning about Radar Systems as an elective in B.Tech gave insight into military applications. I was fortunate to get admission to Pune’s Institute of Armament Technology (now Defence Institute of Advanced Technology) via a written exam where 10 engineering students were selected for the post graduate course, where I pursued masters degree in guided missiles that led to the scientific world I dreamt of.

How did you get associated with the missiles? What are your fond memories with the missile man Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam?

The world of missiles opened up for me after I happened to be picked as one of 10 youngsters from around the country for a DRDO programme in 1985. Joined IAT (Now DIAT), Pune as a faculty member in Guided Missiles for a year and moved to DRDL, Hyderabad as a Scientist in 1988.  

Dr.APJ Abdul Kalam was my Guru and working with him was encouraging and challenging. He was a great personality, a true illustration of “Simple Living and High Thinking”. He was a true legend who made DRDO one of the renowned organization in the world. He showed us that determination and hard work will render and define our life the way we want it to be.

My first interaction with Dr Kalam was when I was posted as Scientist ‘B’ DRDL, Hyderabad. Dr. Kalam asked me what was my area of specialization and project work in M.E(Guided Missiles). I replied, “Gyro less Inertial Navigation System”. Dr. Kalam decided and said, “Then you join the Navigation Group that is working on the guidance systems for the missiles.” I thus joined the Navigation group and was assigned the task, “Design of Guidance law for All-Solid-Propulsion Systems”, for which thrust termination was not possible.  Efficient guidance design makes the missile seek the target very accurately. My contribution to the development of the Guidance Law for the missiles was very successful and that would not have been possible without the constant support of the Director. Subsequently, my responsibilities progressively extended into design of critical subsystems for strategic missiles. Growing up with DRDO gave me opportunities to learn, design and develop strategic systems for the defence capability and achieving self-reliance.

My last interaction with Dr.kalam was at the National Programme, Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyan, in July 2015. The unique concept developed by the Ministry of HRD aims at inculcating a spirit of inquiry, creativity and love for Science & Mathematics in school children. At the inaugural session – it still resounds in my ears – Dr Kalam introduced me to the audience of 3000 students and other dignitaries. It was a great privilege and cherished moment of my life. He said – “I want to introduce to you two great innovators and inventors, who are not on the dias but seated among the audience here- One is Dr.Tessy Thomas, the Agni-V lady. She is the designer, developer and maker of Agni-V missiles and the other one is Mrs.Nandini Harinath from ISRO”

What it’s like to be such a powerful woman in the field of aviation? What are the hurdles that you have overcome to get into this position?

At the end of the day, it is hardwork and most importantly determination that drives an individual to follow his/her dreams. I see Challenges as opportunities to prove myself. There is no doubt that heading a missile project is a demanding job filled with challenges and the technologies first time to be proven. So one needs to have proper planning and decision making capabilities. With first-of-its-kind technologies, failures might occur. DRDO has given me the opportunity to work as Director General for Aeronautical systems. Yet another area, where we need to built new generation technologies for Aircraft and unmanned systems.


What are your greatest achievements so far? Which one is the most memorable among them?

I was associated with Agni Programme right from its developmental flights. I have designed the guidance scheme for long range missile systems which is used in all Agni missiles. An energy management guidance scheme was designed and developed for the first time in the country for an all – solid propelled long range systems. In my work spanning more than 34 years, contributed in various fields such as Guidance, Control, Inertial Navigation, Trajectory Simulation and Mission Design.  I lead a major project AGNI-4 as Project Director, for a state-of-art system with many new technologies for the first time and successfully flight tested and was the most challenging and memorable experience. I was also Project Director (Mission) for the long range AGNI-5 system and successfully flight tested. As Director, Advanced Systems Laboratory, DRDO, held multi-dimensional roles and responsibilities and lead the development of strategic missile systems.  Looking at Aeronautical field, Final Operational Clearance of LCA, Airborne Early Warning & Control Systems and subsonic cruise systems are few of the achievements.


How are the R&D works at DRDO`s Aeronautical department serving our defense forces?

Presently, leading the Aeronautical Systems Cluster Laboratories as Director General with the responsibility of design and development of state-of-the-art-UAV’s, Manned Aircrafts,  Aero Gas Turbine engine technology, Air borne surveillance systems, technologies and systems related to parachute and lighter-than-air systems for the Armed forces. Today, DRDO is poised for taking up the major flagship projects in both manned aircraft and unmanned aerial systems. All the building blocks required for development of these systems are available at high Technology Readiness Levels. The key to success is to convert these technologies to systems with the participation of both public and private companies as system integrators.


What is your view on UAVs? Can you give us a glimpse of the futuristic projects that you are heading?

UAVs are going to be the key weapon systems in future air, land and sea warfare. It will be used in ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and strike missions and will play a major role in Net centric warfare.


How do you balance your responsibilities at the work place and that at home?

Being a defence scientist is not a 9am to 5pm job. Carrying out research could mean late hours. Work-life balance may be difficult. In Indian culture, we feel that women are also supposed to be taking care of the home, so a little bit of challenges are there. "It was tough when my son was in school."  It is slightly tough, but with the support of my family I could manage both work at office and home too.

What are the suggestions you would like to give our readers and women in particular who wish to choose this field?

More and more women are coming forward to take up this challenging field of science. Women can become part of the mainstream society once they learn how to overcome challenges that comes on their path. Women have many roles and responsibilities to take up each day. Take an extra step each day and view all challenges with a positive outlook. Keep striving hard, only if you try you will know how much more is left to be achieved. If your dreams are big enough, even sky is not the limit.