Valerie Thomas wasn’t encouraged to pursue her interests in math and science by people around her but that didn’t stop her one bit. At the age of eight while other girls in her neighborhood were playing with dolls, Thomas was tinkering with radios going so far as to borrow The Boy’s First Book of Electronics from the local library. And while some of her neighbors might have thought a girl shouldn’t work with electronics it didn’t keep them from coming by to get their radios and then later televisions repaired by young Valerie.
Always at the top of her class in school she attended Morgan State University, majoring in physics and graduating with highest honors. Recruited by several companies she decided she would join the National Aeronautical and Space Administration as a mathematician and data analyst.
At NASA she spent more than ten years working on the development of the Landsat image processing system, the first satellite to be used to take images of the Earth from space. In her role as a program manager for Landsat, she used the images collected to predict crop yields.
Continuing her work at NASA she was project manager for the Space Physics Analysis Network, a computer network connecting thousands of research stations that allows scientists from the United States, Europe, South America, and Canada to communicate and collaborate. Valerie Thomas also helped to develop the computer program designs that were used to support research on the ozone layer, Halley’s Comet, and other satellite technology.
All that tinkering she did growing up carried over into her adult life and she continued to work on electronics, inventing an illusion transmitter that produces optical illusion images using two concave mirrors. Her technology was adopted by NASA and is still in use today and has been adapted for use in the production of television and video screens as well as in surgical applications.
Retiring from NASA in 1995 her efforts have been recognized a number of times including being awarded with the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal and the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit.
Written by Angela Goad