February 27: Valerie Thomas, Another of NASA’s ‘Hidden Figures’

Valerie Thomas’ interest in science was sparked by seeing her dad work on the family’s television set, and furthered when she got her hands on a copy of The Boys First Book on Electronics at the age of eight. But despite the fact that her father was the reason for her interest in the field at all, he would not help her with the projects in the book. To make matters worse, her all-girls school did not encourage participation in math and science. It was at Morgan State University, where she would be one of only two women in the physics major, that her interest in math and science was nurtured and encouraged.

Following graduation, Thomas accepted a position as a data analyst at NASA, where she oversaw the creation of the image-processing systems for the first satellite to send images to the Earth from space. She made numerous other contributions to the study of space, including developing computer program designs that supported research on Halley’s Comet, the ozone layer, and satellite technology. She would go on to invent the illusion transmitter, a device NASA still uses, and which has been adapted as a surgical tool and a for use in television and video. She received a patent for the device in 1980.

Before retiring from NASA in 1995, she would serve as Project Manager of the Space Physics Analysis Network and Associate Chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com

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