Valerie Thomas; inventor of the illusion transmitter helping NASA today

Mohammed Awal Apr 6, 2020 at 12:00pm

April 06, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, Women of Value

Mohammed Awal

Mohammed Awal

April 06, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, Women of Value

Image Credit: Landsat Science

Enthralled with technology from a young age, Valerie Thomas is an African-American scientist and inventor, famous for inventing the illusion transmitter and her breathtaking research at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Illusion Transmitter is a device that would simulate a real-time, 3-dimensional viewing of an object through optical illusions with parabolic mirrors.

Born in February 1943, Thomas, graduated with a degree in Physics from Morgan State University. She then moved on to become a Mathematician at NASA. 

“When I started work at NASA, I had not seen a computer except in science fiction movies,” Thomas recalled in an interview with Landsat Science even though her job involved writing computer programs.

Thomas then decided to learn as much as possible about computers, taking advantage of all types of opportunities to learn about computers and computing.

“During that time, people who worked on computers needed strong math backgrounds, including abstract algebra and the ability to do mathematics operations in several different number systems (binary, octal, decimal, and hexadecimal),” she said.

Thomas was writing quick-look processing assembly language programs for the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (OGO) before joining the Landsat program.

That was before there were communication satellites that provide access to scientific satellites in space, and as a result Thomas “had to decommutate the scientific data, received when the satellite was in the range to download data via an antenna, for the OGO scientist and present it in a format so that he could determine the status of his experiment and make changes for the experiment if necessary.”

When Thomas started working on the Landsat program in 1970, the hardware and software image processing systems were being developed in Michigan.

Thomas’ determination and the math experience she had in college alongside, computer science training and experience at NASA among other motivating factors would prepare her with the needed “knowledge, skill and confidence” to take on the Landsat challenges.

To become acquainted with the format of the digital tapes and with the Landsat images (originally called), Thomas taught herself Fortran to write a simple program that could read digital tapes in the “required format and print out the contents in an easy to read format.”

Thomas, who began working for NASA in 1964, following her stellar performance since joining the agency, would head a team of approximately 50 people for the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment (LACIE).

LACIE was a joint effort with NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It showed the probability of using space technology to automate the process of predicting wheat yield on a worldwide basis. 

“The LACIE project was challenging because I was responsible for managing the development of image processing systems, and when the original task leader left the group, I became the leader responsible for all of GSFC’s LACIE contributions. Success of the project was critically dependent upon the extreme accuracy requirement, and the purchase of computer hardware during that time would take what seemed like “forever,” Thomas told Landsat Science.

Thomas in 1976, participated in an exhibition that included an illusion of a light bulb. The light bulb was lit, though it had been detached from its socket. That illusion, which involved another light bulb and concave mirrors, inspired Thomas, the National Association of Black Physics (NSBP) noted.

She then began her research in 1977, leading to the invention of the illusion transmitter – a patent she obtained on October 21, 1980. Thomas received several NASA awards including the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity.

Thomas, who retired from NASA in 1995, is still teaching and participating in hands-on STEM programs.

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