Home News Remembering Virginia Norwood: How the ‘Mother’ of NASA’s Landsat Program Changed Space Exploration

Remembering Virginia Norwood: How the ‘Mother’ of NASA’s Landsat Program Changed Space Exploration

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Virginia Norwood was an important person who worked in aerospace and invented something amazing. She developed the Landsat satellite program to monitor what’s going on with the Earth’s surface. On March 27th, she passed away at 96 years old, as reported by NASA and The New York Times. Say goodbye to a very special woman!

She accomplished a lot in her career, even if the industry was mostly run by men who didn’t believe she was capable of doing anything. Despite how smart she was when she left MIT, many companies refused to employ her because of her gender. For instance, Sikorsky Aircraft said they wouldn’t give her the same salary that one would get from a civil service job. There was also a food lab that wanted her to promise not to have kids before they hired her (she changed her mind at this point). Remington saw that she had really good ideas during the interview but told her they it’s better hiring a man anyway.

In the 1950s, Norwood began her career working with a small group of women at Hughes Aircraft Company. She quickly gained attention for being incredibly resourceful and was known as someone who could solve impossible problems. This led to jobs at the US Army Signal Corps Laboratories (where she designed something that helps weather balloons) and Sylvania Electronic Defense Labs (where she set up their very first antenna lab). According to her daughter, Naomi Norwood, she said “people would bring things to me even from other projects”.

In the late 1960s, someone from the Geological Survey wanted to take pictures of Earth from space. They teamed up with NASA and planned to send some special satellites into space. The idea that made this happen was given by a lady called Norwood who worked on an advanced design team in Hughes’ space and communications division. She asked experts in areas like agriculture, meteorology, and geology for help creatinga scanner that could record different kinds of light and energy spectra. This technology already existed for other uses but Norwood tweaked it for what the Geological Survey and NASA needed it for.

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However, it was difficult for her to find a place for her special camera, called the Multispectral Scanner System (MSS), on the satellite. The satellite already had another big three-camera system made by RCA which was using old television tube technology. To get her MSS on the launch satellite, Norwood needed to shrink its size down to only 100 lbs which was significantly smaller than RCA’s large 4,000 lb. camera system.

To prepare the device for a space journey, it was changed to only record four energy levels (from seven). On July 23rd, 1972, the satellite containing this “MSS” tool launched and took pictures of Oklahoma’s Ouachita Mountains. These images were beyond everyone’s guesses, meaning that the MSS was more reliable than what many had initially thought. The RCA project on board didn’t work out as planned and soon after launch it had to be disabled due to power issues.

After creating the Landsat system, Norwood continuously improved it over time, making Landsat 2, 3, 4 and 5. The same system is still being used today by Landsat 8 and 9 to track how the climate changes. She also worked with Hughes Aircraft’s missile lab’s microwave group and designed communications equipment for NASA’s Surveyor lunar lander which goes on all kinds of different moon missions.

It seemed that she was not against the nickname her friends gave her: “the mother of Landsat”. She happily accepted it and even said, “I like it, and it’s true. I made this (Landsat), protected it, and brought it to life.”

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