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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
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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)

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Soyuz Rocket’s Crew Say That They Trust The Rocket ,Post Previous Failure

Russian investigators said the rocket failure was caused by a sensor that was damaged during assembly.

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Russian Rocket, Soyuz
From left: CSA astronaut David Saint Jacques, Russian cosmonaut Оleg Kononenko‎ and U.S. astronaut Anne McClain pose in a mock-up of a Soyuz space craft at Russian Space Training Center in Star City, Russia. VOA

A U.S. astronaut said on Thursday she had full confidence in the safety of the Russian-made Soyuz rocket that will blast a three-person crew into space next month in the first such launch since a rocket failure.

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and U.S. and Canadian astronauts Anne McClain and David Saint-Jacques are due to embark for the International Space Station on Dec. 3 after a similar launch on Oct. 11 ended in an emergency landing.

Russian Rocket, Soyuz
Head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin addresses the media upon the arrival of Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and U.S. astronaut Nick Hague at Baikonur airport, Kazakhstan. VOA

Two minutes into that launch, a rocket failure forced Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin and U.S. astronaut Nick Hague to abort their mission and hurtle back to Earth in a capsule that landed in the Kazakh steppe. The two were unharmed.

Speaking at a news conference in Star City near Moscow, McClain said that occasional failures were inevitable, but that the mishap with the Soyuz-FG in October had demonstrated the reliability of its emergency safety mechanisms.

“We trust our rocket. We’re ready to fly,” she said at the conference also attended by her colleagues Kononenko and Saint-Jacques.

Russian Rocket, Soyuz
A view shows the Soyuz capsule that carried U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin, after it made an emergency landing, near the city of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan. VOA

“A lot of people called it an accident, or an incident, or maybe want to use it as an example of it not being safe, but for us it’s exactly the opposite because our friends came home,” McClain told reporters.

Also Read: A Successful Emergency Landing For US-Russian Space Rocket

Russian investigators said the rocket failure was caused by a sensor that was damaged during assembly at the Soviet era-cosmodrome at Baikonur from where McClain, Saint Jacques and Kononenko are due to launch.

Ahead of their mission, an unmanned rocket carrying cargo is due to launch on Nov 16. in what will be the first Soyuz-FG take-off from Baikonur since the mishap. (VOA)