Remembering Virginia Norwood, the “mother” of NASA’s Landsat program | Engadget

If you haven’t heard of Virginia Norwood, it’s time you did. An aerospace pioneer whose career would have been historic even without her current triumph over misogynist discrimination, she invented the Landsat satellite program that now monitors the Earth’s surface. Norwood died on March 27 at the age of 96, as reported by NASA and The New York Times.

She achieved all of this despite the significant setback in the male-dominated industry before and after her rise. Despite her obvious talent, many employers refused to hire her after she graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For example, Sikorsky Aircraft told him that they would never pay his requested salary, equivalent to the lowest rank in the civil service. Another food lab she applied to asked her to promise not to get pregnant as a condition of her job. (She withdrew.) Finally, gunmaker Remington appreciated her “brilliant” ideas during an interview, but told her they were hiring a man instead.

Her career eventually progressed after landing jobs at the U.S. Army Signal Corps Laboratories (where she designed a radar reflector for weather balloons) and Sylvania Electronic Defense Labs (where she set up the company’s first antenna lab. ). Norwood began working in the 1950s as a member of a small group of women at the Hughes Aircraft Company, where she gained a reputation as an ingenious problem solver. “She said, ‘I was kind of known as the person who could solve impossible problems,'” her daughter, Naomi Norwood, told NASA. “So people were bringing things to him, even bits and pieces from other projects.”

Hughes aircraft / NASA

In the late 1960s, the director of the Geological Survey wanted to take photographs of the Earth from space to help manage Earth’s resources; in partnership with NASA, a plan was drawn up to send satellites into space. Then working as part of an advanced design team in the space and communications division of Hughes, Norwood formed the idea that would define his legacy. She gathered feedback from experts in agriculture, meteorology and geology to develop a scanner to record different spectra of light and energy. Although it used existing technology designed for agricultural (low-altitude) observations, it adapted the technology to meet the purposes of the Geological Survey and NASA.

However, it faced many hurdles to secure a place for its Multispectral Scanner System (MSS) on the launch satellite. It already carried a huge three-camera system developed by RCA using television tube technology, which the agencies considered the main source of imagery. To board the MSS, Norwood was instructed to reduce its size to no more than 100 pounds, a significant reduction in manpower; the RCA system absorbed most of the satellite’s 4,000 lb payload.

She scaled down the device to only register four energy bands (down from the original seven) to ensure it would make the journey as a secondary measurement system. The satellite was launched on July 23, 1972, and the MSS captured its first images – of Oklahoma’s Ouachita Mountains – two days later. The results exceeded all expectations, forcing a rapid reassessment of the satellite’s payload hierarchy. Norwood’s system worked better and was more reliable than the clunky RCA project, which caused power surges and had to be shut down for a good two weeks after the mission started.

Landsat quickly became the de facto method for studying the Earth’s surface. Norwood continued to improve the system, leading the development of Landsat 2, 3, 4 and 5. Landsat 8 and 9, the current versions monitoring the effects of climate change today, are still based on its initial concept. His other projects included leading the microwave group in the Hughes Aircraft Missile Laboratory and designing ground control communications equipment for NASA’s Surveyor lunar lander.

She would have had no problem with the nickname “the mother of Landsat” that her peers gave her. “Yeah, I like it, and it’s appropriate,” she said. “I created it, I brought it into the world and I fought for it.”

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