Published : Sunday, November 26, 2017 | 5:23 AM
At 81, Sue Finley, an employee of Jet Propulsion Laboratory since January, 1958, has become the longest-serving woman in NASA.
Finley actually started as a “human computer,” solving complex math problems for the engineers in the space program. Along with the other women in the agency back then, Finley calculated rocket trajectories by hand.
She joined JPL just one week before the U.S. Army launched Explorer 1, America’s first earth satellite.
“It was a very big deal,” she told Voice of America reporter recently of the launch, which was the U.S.’s response to a series of launches the former Soviet Union made a few months earlier with Sputnik 1 and 2, the first satellites.
Finley worked on the Pioneer 1 mission, NASA’s first satellite, launched in late 1958 and which marked the start of the international space race.
Finley said she was most excited about the Venus balloon mission, or the Vega mission, in 1985, in which the U.S., French and Soviet space agencies collaborated to deploy two balloons into the atmosphere of Venus using the Vega 1 and Vega 2 spacecraft.
Computers at JPL were way more advanced by that time.
“I can remember being in the control room and looking at the screen and waiting for the blip to come,” she recalls in a NASA video on JPL’s website. “And when it came, I actually jumped up and down.”
Finley has had a role in almost every U.S. unmanned space probe as well as in some missions of other nations, she said.
“We were certainly proud,” she says, “but you just go to the next thing.”
The advent of electronic computers slowly changed what the all-female computations group did. The women were trained to program in FORTRAN, the primary computer language developed for scientific applications. Male engineers largely didn’t want to do the programming themselves in the 1960s. It was still considered “women’s work,” not part of an engineer’s job description.
Through her career, Finley provided both manual computation work and FORTRAN programs as part of JPL’s missions to the Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, in the Ranger, Mariner, Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager programs.
During the Vega mission, Finley had to change the software for the antenna that tracked the mission.
“And it worked,” she said. “Everything worked. That’s what was so exciting!”
Since 1980, Finley has worked on NASA’s Deep Space Network, which coordinates satellite facilities in California, Spain, and Australia that allow communication with space probes.
She also developed software that generates audio tones sent back from spacecraft, informing ground engineers about what’s happening in space. She listens to special frequencies that tell engineers what the spacecraft is doing — like opening a parachute or letting go of its heat shield.
The software was first developed for the Mars mission.
Stephen Lichten, one of Finley’s colleagues in the space program, said Finley also helped develop communication arrays that combine multiple antennas to act in unison and other advances that are now crucial to space missions.
Lichten said Finley inspired her younger colleagues.
“There was a parade of people coming in constantly, to ask her advice, to ask her questions,” Lichten said. “This was during the Venus balloon mission days, and I realized that Sue was regarded as sort of a guru at JPL.”
Finley continues to work at JPL, saying there’s nothing else she wants to do.
“And, so far, they need me,” she says.
One thing she always tells other younger women at NASA is for them to be inquisitive, to never be afraid to ask questions and “never be afraid to say you don’t know.”