This NASA scientist changed the way we see satellite images of Earth

Dr. Valerie L. Thomas is known for her role in developing Landsat image processing data systems

Dr. Valerie L. Thomas in 1979 standing with a stack of early Landsat Computer Compatible Tapes and Dr. Valerie L. Thomas today
Dr. Valerie L. Thomas in 1979 standing with a stack of early Landsat Computer Compatible Tapes and Dr. Valerie L. Thomas today (NASA)

When you think of pioneering Black female aerospace workers, the 2016 film, “Hidden Figures” comes to mind. It showcases how Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Johnson played a pivotal role at NASA. They weren’t the only ones paving the way.

Dr. Valerie L. Thomas accomplished a lot in her lifetime and during her career at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, but she didn’t always have the resources she needed to learn more about technology growing up.

Born in 1943, Thomas says she was first inspired to find out “what makes things tick” from her father. He was active in photography and when televisions became popular in homes, she loved to observe her father working on the TV. She noticed the mechanical parts inside the box and always wondered how they produced images on the screen.

On a trip to the library Thomas picked up a book called “The Boys First Book in Electronics.”

“I was hoping that my father would help me build electronic projects. That did not happen,” she recalled. “When the book was returned to the library, another book caught my attention: “The Boys Second Book in Electronics.” When I took the book home, the results were the same. I thought that the indirect message to me was “electronics is not for girls, sew and do hair, like your mother.” That is what I did but I still wanted to learn about electronics.”

Thomas hoped she would be able to hone in on these skills in junior or senior high but didn’t get the chance until college.

“I chose to major in physics in college because that would help me to learn about ‘what makes things tick,’” said Thomas.

During her senior year at Morgan State College, she signed up for an opportunity to speak to recruiters about future job prospects. A NASA representative contacted her and wanted to hire her right after graduation.

Thomas started her career at Goddard in 1964. She worked on several important projects at NASA, but what she is most known for is her work with Landsat image processing software systems, and the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment, also known as LACIE.

Thomas started her work on Landsat in 1970 and the Landsat Satellite launched two years later in 1972.

According to NASA’s website, Landsat “offers the longest continuous global record of the Earth’s surface; it continues to deliver visually stunning and scientifically valuable images of our planet.”

Thomas says she was responsible for managing the development of the software data systems for the digital data products, basically she helped process the images captured by Landsat for easier distribution.

“Scientists were initially sent the images printed on photo paper and then they requested digital versions of the images to do more extensive research. They were referred to me when they had questions about the format of the Landsat images on the tapes,” said Thomas.

She had to respond to a lot of scientists with the same questions, so she decided to write a book to clearly describe the format of the Landsat images on the tape.

“A representative from one organization indicated that the scientists there could not live without the document,” Thomas recalled. “The scientists were from countries around the world.”

Her most challenging project, was LACIE. It was a study to determine if test sites of wheat fields in certain locations could be identified in Landsat images, and then be used during the growing season to predict wheat yield. It was a joint effort with NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Deptartment of Agriculture.

She says the project required software development, hardware that needed to be purchased, research and development, a production of 100 test sites per day, and it was expected to support a satellite launch. She had no additional funding and just 5 months to complete the system that provided the test sites to support the experiment. In the end, it came together and all the requirements were met just in time for the Readiness Review Meeting in Huntsville, Alabama. She prepared a 15 minute presentation, but then found out she was on the agenda for 45 minutes.

“It was decided that I would represent GSFC at the meeting. I expected the meeting (my first) to be in a conference room; however, it was in a packed auditorium and I was the only person from GSFC. When I returned to GSFC, I called the science office contact and told him that he ‘threw me to the wolves.’ He said, ‘I know but I knew you could handle it.’ He was right,” Thomas said.

Thomas is also known for her Illusion Transmitter that she invented in the 1970s, and received a patent for in 1980. She said there are products today based on her patent, and she envisions the Illusion Transmitter as being a TV where images are projected into the air instead of a screen, and can be seen without wearing special 3D glasses.

“There have been references to the Illusion Transmitter producing holograms, which surprised me since I remembered holograms being produced using lasers,” said Thomas.

After a life-long career, Thomas retired from NASA in 1995, but she kept busy even after retirement. Thomas obtained her doctoral degree at the University of Delaware. She also developed a company that provided support for another NASA Goddard Space Flight Center project, this includes the Minority University - Space Interdisciplinary Network (MU-SPIN), which makes sure minority universities are not left behind on what she calls the new information super highway.

Thomas continues to mentor youth through education outreach with some organizations. She’s even a substitute teacher at a high school that has an aerospace program.


About the Author: