Remembering Virginia Norwood, the ‘mother’ of NASA’s Landsat program

If you haven’t heard of Virginia Norwood, it’s about time you did. An aerospace pioneer whose career would have been historic even without the background of her triumph over misogynistic discrimination, she invented the Landsat satellite program that monitors the Earth’s surface today. Norwood passed away on March 27 at the age of 96, according to NASA and The New York Times.

She accomplished all of this despite significant pushback from the male-dominated industry before and after her rise. Despite her obvious talent, numerous employers refused to hire her after she graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For example, Sikorsky Aircraft told her that she would never be paid her 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 employment. (She withdrew the request from her). Finally, gunmaker Remington thanked her for her “brilliant” ideas in an interview, but told her that they were hiring a man instead.

His career eventually progressed after landing jobs at the US Army Signal Corps Laboratories (where he designed a radar reflector for weather balloons) and at Sylvania Defense Electronics Laboratories (where he installed the first laboratory for antennas of the company). Norwood began working in the 1950s as part of a small group of women at the Hughes Aircraft Company, where she gained a reputation as an ingenious problem solver. “She said, ‘She was known as the person who could solve impossible problems,'” her daughter, Naomi Norwood, told NASA. “For people to bring him things, even pieces from other projects.”

Black and white image from 1963 of Virginia Norwood, sitting with a sly smile on her face.

Hughes/NASA aircraft

In the late 1960s, the director of the Geological Survey wanted to take pictures of Earth from space to help manage Earth’s resources; in partnership with NASA, a plan was hatched to send satellites into space. Then, working on an advanced design team in Hughes’ space and communications division, Norwood formed the idea that would define his legacy. He gathered feedback from agriculture, meteorology and geology experts to develop a scanner to record different spectrums of light and energy. Although he used existing technology made for agricultural observations (at lower altitudes), he adapted the technology to meet the goals of the Geological Survey and NASA.

However, it faced numerous obstacles in securing a place for its Multispectral Scanner System (MSS) on the launch satellite. It was already carrying a huge three-camera system developed by RCA using television tube technology, which the agencies considered the main source of images. To bring the MSS on board, Norwood was tasked with reducing its size to no more than 100 pounds, a significant reduction; the RCA system absorbed most of the satellite’s 4,000-pound payload.

He scaled the device down to record just four energy bands (down from the original seven) to ensure it would make the trip as a secondary measurement system. The satellite was launched on July 23, 1972, and 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 RCA’s clumsy project, which caused power surges and had to be shut down for good two weeks after the mission.

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 that monitor the effects of climate change today, are still based on his initial concept. His other projects included leading the microwave group at Hughes Aircraft’s missile laboratory and designing the ground control communications equipment for NASA’s Surveyor lunar lander.

She reportedly had no problem with the nickname “Landsat’s mother” given to her by her peers. “Yes, I like it, and it’s apt,” she said. “I created it, birthed it, and fought for it.”

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