A century ago, no one expected a girl to grow up to become anything but a mother and a housewife. That was the accepted notion of American culture at the time, and very few women broke those unwritten rules. Born in January, 1927 (now 94 years of age), Virginia Norwood was going to be one of the exceptions. She did become a mother of three children, but her professional accomplishments earned her a place in history. Her father, an electrical engineer with a master’s degree in physics, and an instructor at Carnegie Institute of Technology (later becoming Carnegie Mellon University), encouraged her in math, science, and engineering. In fact, he gave her a slide rule (a device engineers used before calculators and computers) when she was just nine years old and taught her how to use it. Graduating from high school in 1944 at age 17, she went on to earn a degree in mathematical physics from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in just three years, managing to squeeze in a few graduate classes to boot. Now only twenty years old, smart but without experience, she initially found it difficult to find a job in science or engineering. It was 1947; the nation was still transitioning from a wartime footing to a post-war economy. Thousands of highly trained and experienced men returning from military service were looking for good jobs, too, and they were given precedent. For awhile she worked in a department store, until she landed a job teaching math to veterans on the GI Bill.
In 1948, both she and her husband (also an engineer) were hired by the US Army Signal Corps Laboratories, based in New Jersey. She worked on weather radar system design, and then later, microwave antenna design. In 1953, they moved to California, both taking positions at Sylvania Electronic Defense Labs in Mountain View, near San Francisco. Her job was to build an antenna lab for Sylvania, the company’s first. An electronics lab like this needs test equipment and instruments to make measurements. Much of this precision instrumentation and equipment was purchased from a small company in nearby Palo Alto, called Hewlett-Packard (HP). [As an aside, HP is often viewed as the startup company that germinated Silicon Valley.] After only about a year with Sylvania, the Norwoods relocated to Los Angeles where Virginia took a position with Hughes Aircraft Company, which was reputed to have the most advanced antenna engineering group in the nation. Norwood built a reputation as an engineer with an impressive set of abilities and rare combination of skills and qualifications. Her rock-solid science background, her creativity and analytic ability, coupled with effective communication skills, and the ability to motivate others, led to a promotion to lead the microwave division. She was now the right person in the right place at the right time for a challenging project.
In the 1960s, as NASA was putting astronauts in space with the intention to go to the moon, the US Geological Survey (USGS) determined that the nation could benefit by having a satellite that gathered data about the land and how it was being used, simply by peering down on the Earth from orbit. It would be called Landsat. The USGS approached NASA, which initially declined as it already had alot on its plate. However, when USGS announced it would build and launch Landsat on its own, politics forced NASA to recant and partner with USGS. From that point on, NASA was in charge of building and launching Landsat: they put out a call for imaging sensor ideas. Norwood was immediately interested in the challenge, and went the extra mile to talk to people in the USGS about what they wanted from the data that Landsat was to collect. With that insight she and her team designed a unique and groundbreaking instrument, called the Multispectral Scanner System (MSS) which gathered light in red, blue, green, and infrared wavelengths. The data collected was digitized for downlink to groundstations, a break from traditional analog downlinks and a leap forward for satellite technology. The MSS proved far superior to the conventional optical camera system that was also onboard Landsat 1, providing superior data to USGS users, who were thrilled beyond their expectations.
Virginia Norwood’s legacy lies in the success of the Landsat program. Landsat satellites have been in continuous use for fifty years, and owe their success to the scanner design conceived by “the mother of Landsat” as she’s been named. After 36 years with Hughes, she retired in 1990. Today, at age 94, she enjoys bird watching and driving her sportscar. Really. More of Virginia Norwood’s story and her contribution to the Landsat program can be found on the NASA Landsat website and in the online journal Science.
NASA Goddard | “Landsat 9: part 1, Getting Off The Ground” (5:20)
NASA | “Come Fly With Landsat” (3:57)
Question Of The Night: If you could live anywhere, other than your current abode, where would you choose? (e.g., on the water, in the mountains, overseas, in a specific state, city, or neighborhood, in the country, etc… you can be as specific or as broad as you wish.)