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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

This NASA-ISRO Mission Set to Crunch Key Space Data in Cloud

"Interest in space helps everybody. And there's a lot of commercial interest now. I think if there is a business to be made, commercial space will do that. When there is no business to be made that no one can make money, then the government should do that

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University of Iowa, Radiation, Sun
FILE - Tourists take pictures of a NASA sign at the Kennedy Space Center visitors complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida, April 14, 2010. VOA

By NISHANT ARORA

As the humankind aims for deeper space missions like Mars in couple of years from now, the time is to democratize humongous data available via NASA and space agencies like the Indian Space Research organization (ISRO) that can boost space research via next-gen Cloud computing, a top NASA-JPL official has stressed.

Scheduled for launch from Sriharikota launch facility in Andhra Pradesh in 2022, the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission is a joint project between the US and Indian space agencies to co-develop and launch a dual-frequency synthetic aperture radar on an Earth observation satellite. The satellite will be the first radar imaging one to use dual frequencies (L and S Band).

ISRO is likely to spend Rs 788 crore while JPL’s work share is expected to be over $800 million on this key project.

Using advanced radar imaging that will provide an unprecedented, detailed view of Earth, NISAR satellite is designed to observe and take measurements of some of the planet’s most complex processes — ecosystem disturbances, ice-sheet collapse and natural hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and landslides.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning-driven Cloud computing is certainly going to make the key difference once the satellite is up and running.

“NISAR is going to generate 100 terabytes per day. That’s a lot of data. It’s about a hundred times more than anything we’ve ever done together. It doesn’t fit in our data centres. So we have to put it in the Cloud,” Tom Soderstrom, Chief Innovation and Technology Officer, NASA JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), told IANS during an interaction here.

“The data needs to be worked on for the Indian space agency with several others including NASA. Having it in the Cloud gives us a good place to store, analyse and parse it right for the benefit of humankind,” Soderstrom added.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a federally-funded research and development center in Pasadena, California.

“For our science data processing part, we discovered that we could use GPUs (graphic processing units) which were never done before. So, for NISAR, we tried GPUs and realized that it’s better, sometimes 100 times better, based on what you’re doing and overall four times faster,” Soderstrom explained.

ISRO
Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman K. Sivan, left, and Junior Indian Minister for Department of Atomic Energy and Space Jitendra Singh address a news conference in New Delhi. VOA

The data collected from NISAR mission will reveal information about the evolution and state of Earth’s crust, help scientists better understand our planet’s processes and changing climate, and aid future resource and hazard management.

According to Soderstrom, now they can not only process data much faster but also switch between CPUs and GPUs, whichever is the cheapest.

“Cloud will help us process the data differently. Now, you have lots of interesting data for different spacecrafts. We can now apply machine learning to see trends — both in the science and telemetry data,” said the NASA-JPL executive.

At JPL, everyone has intelligent digital assistant Alexa at his or her desk, helping the staffers organise daily tasks while making sense of intrinsic data-sets.

“An intelligent digital assistant has two pieces to it. It knows who I am and also knows how long I’ve been there, meaning it knows my role. So it can tell me things that I need to know before I even know I need them. You can ask Alexa simple things like when is NISAR launching or how much data it is producing on a daily basis, or where my source data is coming from,” Soderstrom explained.

Alexa can tell you about the mission’s budget. It can tell you about the compute environment and “we can speak to it, type to it or text to it. We apply machine learning to make Alexa smarter and smarter over time”.

Also Read: Being a Part of UNICEF as Goodwill Ambassador is a Lifetime Privilege, Says Priyanka Chopra Jonas

Soderstrom is also bullish on space collaborations between countries to create a better world.

“Interest in space helps everybody. And there’s a lot of commercial interest now. I think if there is a business to be made, commercial space will do that. When there is no business to be made that no one can make money, then the government should do that.

“If space becomes the business, then let the business people do it like Elon Musk began by transporting things to the International Space Station (ISS). JPL, on the other hand, wants to go and do things that have never been done before. So if people can go to the moon and mine it, so be it. Once Mars becomes commonplace, we’re going to Jupiter’s moon Europa in search of life,” elaborated Soderstrom. (IANS)