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NASA’s human ‘computer’ is still working at age 80

Sue Finely calculated rocket trajectories by hand

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Sue Finley still works at NASA
Sue Finley, 80, is still working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. She started there in 1958 as a human "computer," calculating trajectories for rockets. VOA

Sue Finley, now 80 years old and NASA’s longest-serving female employee, recalls her early days with the space agency when she worked as a human “computer,” calculating rocket trajectories by hand at a time when computers were huge and expensive to operate.

Finley arrived at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, in January 1958, one week before the U.S. Army launched Explorer 1, America’s first earth satellite.

“It was a very big deal,” she recalls of the launch, a response to the launches a few months earlier of the first satellites, Sputnik 1 and 2, from the former Soviet Union.

She was at JPL for Pioneer 1, the first satellite sent aloft by the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in late 1958, which marked the beginning of the international space race.

Unmanned space probes

Since then, Finley has had a role in nearly every U.S. unmanned space probe, and some missions of other nations.

There were failures to overcome and spectacular successes, but always new goals as scientists expanded our knowledge of the earth and solar system.

“We were certainly proud,” she says of NASA accomplishments, “but you just go to the next thing.”

Finley has been through several career changes with the space agency, one of the most important when NASA phased out human computers, moving, initially, to simple electronic versions.

“We got little tiny computers,” she recalls. “One I had 16 wires, jumper cables to code with. One had 10 pegboards that you programmed with.”

As modern computers took over navigational tasks, Finley developed and tested software as a subsystem engineer.

Among her career highlights: the Vega mission, a Soviet-French collaboration with Venus, and Halley’s Comet, which received navigational help from NASA and dropped balloons into the atmosphere of Venus.

She had to change the software for the antenna that tracked the mission, “and it worked,” Finley recalls. “Everything worked. That’s what was so exciting!”

Finley has worked since 1980 on NASA’s Deep Space Network, which coordinates satellite facilities in California, Spain and Australia that allow communication with space probes.

Highlights of NASA career

Career highlights include developing software that generates audio tones sent back from spacecraft, informing engineers on the ground what is happening in space. It was first developed for the Mars missions.

Each tone has a meaning that communicates data, noted one of Finley’s colleagues, Stephen Lichten.

“If a parachute opened, it would send a tone,” Lichten, manager for special projects for the Deep Space Network, said.

“The spacecraft lets go of its heat shield, and it would send a different tone, and so engineers like Sue were here listening for those special frequencies which told them the spacecraft was telling them what it has just done,” he said.

He notes that Finley also helped develop communication arrays that combine multiple antennas to act in unison and other advances that now crucial to space missions.

Lichten once shared an office with Finley and says she inspired her younger colleagues.

“There was a parade of people coming in constantly, to ask her advice, to ask her questions,” he recalls. “This was during the Venus balloon mission days and I realized that Sue was regarded as sort of a guru at JPL.”

Finley has been involved with nearly every advance in space communications in recent decades, and she continues her work today, Lichten said.

There are many more women at NASA today than there were when she started, and Finley said she tells young women to be inquisitive.

“I tell them to never be afraid to ask questions, never be afraid to say you don’t know,” she said.

After nearly six decades at the space agency, a mother of two grown sons and a mentor to her colleagues, Finley has no plans of retiring.

“There’s nothing else I want to do,” she said. “And so far, they need me.”

As they have since the earliest days of the space agency. (VOA)

Next Story

Partial Shutdown of US Delays Space Missions, But NASA Not Grounded

Other active space missions includes NASA probes OSIRIS-REx and New Horizons spacecraft that continue to gather data in Earth orbit and the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and beyond, the report said

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People rally to call for an end to the partial government shutdown in Detroit, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. VOA

The partial shutdown of the US federal government has had a serious impact on the country’s space agency NASA and development work on most future space missions has been slowed or suspended.

However, NASA has not been totally grounded by the partial government shutdown that began on December 22, after last-minute negotiations in Congress failed to end a budget standoff.

Over 95 per cent of the space agency’s employees have been furloughed. As a result, various research projects, including the Hubble Space Telescope has been put on hold, the Space.com reported on Wednesday.

Hubble suffered a mechanical problem that only furloughed NASA employees could repair.

Many workers also gathered outside the Johnson Space Center in Houston to protest the shutdown and its deleterious effects on their lives and the nation’s space programmes.

The Telescope facilities that have so far remained open during the shutdown will soon run out of money and cease operations.

This includes the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), a federally funded organization that operates the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), the Green Bank Telescope and the Very Large Array (VLA), the report noted.

The partial shutdown become the longest on record after January 12, overtaking the previous record of the 21-day impasse in 1995-96 under then President Bill Clinton.

NASA, tissue
US shutdown delays space missions but NASA not grounded: Report,

President Donald Trump and the Congress have been at loggerheads over his demand to include in the budget $5.7 billion funding for building a border wall along the Mexico border. Democratic leaders have rejected his call.

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), also called the “flying telescope” has also ceased operations since the shutdown.

The telescope, which is mounted to the fuselage of a Boeing 747 aircraft, has not flown since the shutdown began, the report said.

However, despite the shutdown some “excepted” employees remained at work, assisting astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and other space missions, the report said.

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Last week, astronauts aboard the ISS conducted a range of scientific experiments and public-outreach work. They engaged in an orbital Q&A with school kids and answered a variety of questions, from the nature of the research performed aboard the ISS to the type of training astronauts receive to whether your ears pop in space.

On January 13, a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule departed the orbiting lab for Earth, eventually splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The robotic Dragon brought down important scientific research and hardware for examination here on terra firma.

Other active space missions includes NASA probes OSIRIS-REx and New Horizons spacecraft that continue to gather data in Earth orbit and the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and beyond, the report said.  (IANS)