Meet Valerie Thomas, the African-American scientist who invented satellite imaging and paved a way for women in STEM

BY Preta Peace Namasaba September 19, 2023 6:47 AM EDT
Valerie Thomas. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Valerie L. Thomas standing with Landsat Computer Compatible Tapes, 1979. Photo Courtesy: NASA

Valerie Thomas, an African American woman, is the visionary behind the invention of the illusion transmitter, a groundbreaking device employed by NASA for transmitting images from space to Earth. Her futuristic creation has found applications in diverse fields, including surgery, 3-D television, and video screens. Valerie Thomas is not only a scientist but also a remarkable source of inspiration for African Americans in STEM.

In her early years, Thomas’s curiosity was piqued when she witnessed her father disassembling a television, revealing its intricate mechanical components. This early exposure fueled her interest in STEM. She even borrowed a book titled “The Boy’s First Book On Electronics” at the tender age of eight, hoping her father would assist her in embarking on various projects. However, her passion for understanding how things work wasn’t actively encouraged, especially during her time at a newly integrated all-girls high school.

“When I got to junior high school, there were no classes on electronics. When I got to high school, there were no classes on electronics, so I sort of gave up. Then, I took a class in physics and it helped to answer the question that I always had: What makes things tick? So, in my senior year when I was trying to decide on what I wanted to major in, I figured physics would be what I need to pursue.”

Valerie Thomas in Oprah Daily

Reflecting on her educational journey, Thomas recollects that advanced math classes were not readily available, yet her determination to pursue technological knowledge remained undeterred. Excelling academically in high school, she gained admission to Morgan State College, a historically Black institution. There, she stood out as one of only two women majoring in physics and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1964.

Upon graduation, Thomas began her career as a data analyst at NASA, where she encountered computers for the first time, having previously seen them only in science fiction films. Eager to learn, she immersed herself in the world of computers and computing, marking the beginning of her lifelong journey in the field. Her initial role at NASA involved analyzing data from the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory, a scientific satellite launched by the United States in the 1960s. Thomas played a crucial role in decommutating scientific data to facilitate communication with satellites in space.

“Being in an environment where everybody’s smart was really gratifying. I enjoyed working on things that hadn’t been done before and getting to be in charge of some of those things. But I wasn’t getting promoted, and other [African Americans] were going through the same thing. So, I had to fight the good fight, in a positive way. I was part of creating an organization called: Humanitarian United Effort. We put together informal activities that would allow these African Americans who were coming in and doing a good job but were in the shadows, and high-level managers to get to know each other.”

Valerie Thomas in Oprah Daily

Her dedication and talent soon led to her involvement in the creation of the Landsat program, enabling uncrewed scientific satellites to collect invaluable data about Earth’s natural resources. As assistant program manager, she contributed to the development of the image-processing system for NASA’s Landsat. Additionally, Thomas spearheaded the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment, pioneering ways to monitor global wheat yields using Landsat images. Her leadership advanced the ability to visualize Earth from space by deploying satellites equipped with diverse cameras and infrared sensors.

However, Thomas’s ingenuity extended beyond earth observation. Intrigued by an illusion she witnessed involving a light bulb that appeared to remain lit even after removal from its socket, she delved into the world of 3D illusions. Through extensive experimentation with concave mirrors and light, she achieved a breakthrough. In 1980, she was granted a patent for the illusion transmitter, a device that utilizes video recording to capture an image seemingly floating in front of a concave mirror. This image is then transmitted to a second camera, which projects it in front of another concave mirror, creating the optical illusion of a 3D image.

Thomas’s invention has had a profound impact, with applications in 3D movies, videos, television, and surgical imaging. NASA continues to utilize the illusion transmitter to capture images from space.

Thomas made significant contributions as the National Space Science Data Center computer facility manager and served as the project manager for the Space Physics Analysis Network. Her expertise in networking was instrumental in developing NASA’s wide area network, a crucial component of the modern Internet. This innovation facilitated collaboration among scientists working on various space-related projects, including research on Halley’s comet, ozone hole studies, and supernovae. A lifelong learner, Thomas earned a master’s degree in engineering administration from George Washington University in 1985.

Towards the later stages of her tenure at NASA, Thomas played a pivotal role in establishing the Minority University-Space Interdisciplinary Network, fostering collaboration between students at minority-serving institutions and NASA scientists. Her commitment to inspiring young Black girls to pursue careers in science led her to collaborate with numerous organizations dedicated to supporting minority and female scientists, including the National Technical Association, Science Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology, Inc., Women in Science and Engineering, and Shades of Blue.