Aerospace engineerVirginia Norwood

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Growing up in New York, Norwood’s father gave her a gift when she was 9 years old: a slide rule. The girl was interested in math, and that helped develop her skills. Her father was an army officer and physicist, and her mother studied math and languages. It was a rich learning environment, yet her high school guidance counselor suggested Virginia might want to be a librarian. You know, because she was a girl. Instead, she applied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which not only accepted her application, it gave her a scholarship. She graduated MIT with a degree in mathematical physics, a few semesters of graduate-level courses, and a new husband: Larry Norwood was one of her calculus instructors, and was president of MIT’s math club.

Virginia Norwood at the Storm Detector Radar Set at the Army Signal Corps Laboratories in New Jersey in 1948, likely recording windspeeds enabled by her innovation. (NASA photo)

After a number of false starts (when asked to promise not to get pregnant if hired at a food lab, Norwood withdrew her application), she and her husband were finally snapped up by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and she continued to study math at Rutgers University. “The government labs could not discriminate against women,” she noted. “They were obliged to take on all comers. As a result, we [also] had many more professionals who were Black than I ever saw subsequently.” Her job at the Signal Corps: improving weather radar systems, for which she designed a radar reflector for weather balloons so that high-altitude winds — above 100,000 ft. — could be measured. “This feat,” MIT said in 2021, “made long-term weather prediction possible for the first time.” Norwood was just 22 years old, and her name is on the resulting patent. With that tackled, she was moved into a new field: microwave antenna design.

The cover page of Norwood’s 1962 patent.

After five years Norwood was hired away by Hughes Aircraft Co. in southern California, where she was the only woman among the 2,700-strong staff at its R&D labs. She worked there for 36 years on antenna design, communications links, optics, and an instrument for Landsat satellites. “We built some very interesting antennas,” she said in 2021, “some of which I can tell you about.” One thing she worked on that is now declassified: she designed the antenna for an improved IFF system on military aircraft — Identify Friend or Foe. Her name is on that patent too. “I guess it worked,” she winked. When she was put in charge of microwave antenna research, one engineer quit because he didn’t want to work for a woman — or a company “stupid enough” to put a woman over him. Norwood shrugged — and went back to work, designing the microwave transmitter that the first soft-landing probe to the moon, Surveyor 1, used to transmit data and images back to Earth. The man who quit came crawling back — and Norwood didn’t hire him. She was promoted to Hughes’ Space Systems Division.

Norwood explains to Labor Secretary James Hodgson how Landsat’s multispectral scanner works in 1972. (He could understand it: he worked for Lockheed for 25 years.) (NASA)

But mostly she worked on the scientific payload for a program called the Earth Resources Technology Satellite, later named Landsat, a series of satellites built for NASA and the U.S. Geographic Survey which have been looking back at Earth since 1972. She had been watching what NASA was doing, and came up with the idea for a special instrument for it herself, and then did the research to make it happen. But first she had to get the funding. “I went to [Hughes Aircraft CEO Allen] Puckett and I said, ‘I need $100,000 in order to build a breadboard [prototype],’ and he gave it to me. My management didn’t understand all that I was doing.” Her first prototype was completed within nine months, and was tested by scanning Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. Her spectrometers flew starting with Landsat 1. For this design work, Norwood is considered by NASA “The Mother of Landsat.” MIT calls her “The woman who brought us the world.” The latest in the series, Landsat 9, was launched in 2021; Norwood was invited to see it take to the sky from Vandenberg Space Force Base. “She paved the way for an entire generation of … Earth observation instruments,” said Landsat project scientist Jeffrey Masek of NASA.

The image the prototype spectrometer got of Half Dome. “When NASA said, ‘How do you know this damn thing will work?’ [we] came up with the idea of taking the breadboard around [to national parks].” The Half Dome image, she said, “was a tremendous hit.” The scanner makes vegetation stand out starkly from the background. (NASA)
How did Norwood figure out the big problems that she was assigned to, or simply decided to, tackle? “You sit and think about a problem,” she said, “and the solutions come to you after a while.” For instance, how to design the first multispectral scanner for Landsat? “Each band,” she said, “takes different detectors and different techniques, and each has its own little problems. Then you had to do a lot of adaptation to make those bands [into one image] so they can be compared. And it was the first time that data from space had been digitized.” It all worked as she designed it. “I was thrilled” when the first images came back. “I was confident it would work,” she said. That, even though she had designed a six-band scanner, Landsat 1 was so rushed it only had a four-band scanner — green, red, and two infrared bands. RCA’s Return Beam Vidicon, essentially a TV camera, “was supposed to be the prime instrument, but the MSS [Multispectral Scanner] data were found to be superior,” NASA admits. “Once we looked at the data,” said Landsat 1 Project Scientist Stan Freden, “the roles switched.” Landsat 1 operated until January 1978, outliving its design life by five years. “The quality and impact of the resulting information exceeded all expectations,” NASA says. It’s a good thing: RCA’s RBV failed less than 2 weeks after launch.

Virginia Norwood received the USGS John Wesley Powell award in 2022, when she was 95. It was addressed to “Engineer Extraordinaire Norwood”. (Family photo)

Norwood received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing in 2021 for her far-reaching impact on the field of remote sensing. In 2021, the U.S. Geological Survey awarded her the John Wesley Powell Award in recognition of her work on Landsat, which has “transformed our understanding of regional, national and global-scale agriculture, forestry, urbanization, hydrology, disaster mitigation and other changes in land use.” In 2022 she received the American Geographical Society’s O.M. Miller Cartographic Medal for her development of the MSS, which “transformed expectations of how we can know the Earth.” And in February, she was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, which is reserved for those who have made outstanding, novel contributions to the field of engineering — among the highest professional distinctions possible for an engineer. Norwood retired from Hughes in 1989. Along the way she had children, taking off — at most — three days from work.

When asked in 2021 what it was like to see so many women in science coming in behind her, Norwood said, “I’ve spent my life where I was the only woman in a program. Now, there’s a whole group of them. That’s kind of nice.” Her most important lesson was as a pioneering woman in science? “Not to accept other people’s negativity. If somebody says, ‘You can’t do it,’ I sort of prick up my ears and decide that I’ll do it.” For her, “it was all fun. And when something is fun, you just keep at it.” Virginia Tower Norwood died on March 26. She was 96.

From This is True for 2 April 2023