For our third blog celebrating Black History Month, we honor an individual whose accomplishments led to a technology that we use every day and take for granted without even considering the innovations and skill that are its foundation. This month, we recognize and thank greatly, Dr. Valerie Thomas, a renown physicist, mathematician, inventor, and leader of what was initially was titled the Earth Resources Technology Satellite – or today known as LANDSAT.
A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Valerie La Verne Thomas, was born in February 1943 to parents who taught the importance of education and hands-on living where she was encouraged to solve problems on her own to the best of her ability. Although the story is that she attended a high school that downplayed math and science, she developed a strong interest in physics that carried her on to a challenging science, chemistry, and math-based education at Morgan State University where she was one of the only two women to major in physics.
Upon graduation from MSU, Thomas was hired by NASA’s Goddard Space Center as a mathematician and data analyst in 1964 at a time when NASA was conducting large-scale experiments and developing complex real-time computer data systems to support NASA’s Orbiting Geophysical Observatory. At about the same time that Thomas was hired by NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey had proposed the idea of a remote sensing satellite program to help with characterizing the natural resources of Earth from a space-based platform. Although it took several years for the program to gain political acceptance, the Landsat program would not have been possible without the development of the image processing software that is key to take, store and analyze the early imagery. This is where Valerie Thomas played the instrumental role as the key manager and developer of the software development program. Landsat-1 was finally launched on July 23, 1972, and soon became the most successful and valuable earth-data collection program world-wide. Now a joint NASA/USGS program, this long-lasting satellite imagery program recently launched Landsat 9 in September 2021. We can thank Valerie Thomas for her leadership in the development of this remarkable science-data program of our home.
Dr. Thomas was additionally influential in numerous other technology and scientific-data pursuits. She served as assistant program manager for Landsat/Nimbus on detail at NASA Headquarters and as the National Space Science Data Center computer facility manager and project manager for the Space Physics Analysis Network which was NASA’s wide area network and a critical part of today’s internet. She additionally contributed to research on numerous other space and atmospheric-based quests including Halley’s comet, ozone hole studies, and supernova analysis.
Valerie Thomas additionally can be recognized as the patent holder for a real time illusion transmitter that produced a real image of an illuminated object – that is as a holographic image - visible without needing special glasses (US Patent 4229761A). Another remarkable achievement that was adopted by NASA, is still used in surgery, and is critical to the production of television and video screens. Dr. Thomas is arguably credited as being the creator of three-dimensional imagery!
Even with all the science management and development work, Valerie Thomas continued her education by obtaining a master’s degree in Engineering Administration from George Washington University in 1985 and a University of Delaware Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership/ Education Technology in 2004. After retirement, Dr. Thomas continued to be involved in educating youth in STEM programs and has received numerous awards including the Goddard Flight Center Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. Thank you Dr. Thomas for your incredible leadership and contribution to areas of science, discovery, and technical development that has enhanced the lives of people around the globe…and beyond!