60 Years! One of NASA’s Longest-Serving Women Marks Milestone

This January, one of NASA’s longest-serving women distinguished a landmark anniversary with the space agency. Only two days before the United States launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958, Sue Finley started what would be a prolonged career at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Sixty years later, the 81-year-old still works at JPL.

“I’m happy here every day,” Finley told Space.com. Over 6 decades, she has worked on a immeasurable array of missions, from the Mariner satellites that visited Mars in the 1970s to Juno, the idea now orbiting Jupiter. She loves the work and the people, both of which minister to an beguiling work environment, she said.

“I have been intensely lucky,” she said. “It has always been that way here.” [The Women Computers of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Slideshow)]

A lab in the mountains

Finley took an extraordinary trail to operative on spacecraft. She spent 3 years in college study art with the idea of apropos an architect. After apropos undone when she found that her credits wouldn’t send to an designer school, she practical to work at an engineering company as a typist. That company was employing computers — at that time, the term for a person (usually a woman) who distributed immeasurable swaths of numbers for engineers.

“They asked me how we favourite math,” Finley said. “I pronounced we favourite it much better than letters.”

She didn’t do all the calculations in her head. Using a vast Friden calculating machine, she and another lady punched in the numbers for 40 engineers.

After only a few months, Finley married and moved, and the invert to the company became too much for her. Her new husband had graduated from the circuitously California Institute of Technology (Caltech), a partner of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“He knew that there was a lab up in the plateau we should go and request to,” she said.

Located in an removed area next to the San Gabriel Mountains, the lab was started by a organisation of Caltech students and pledge rocket enthusiasts. They indispensable somewhere to tinker with rockets but disturbing the internal population. When Finley practical to the lab in 1958, it was sponsored by the U.S. Army; NASA wouldn’t form until that October.

Luck played a big role in getting her where she is today, she said. Referring to her miss of a college degree, she said, “I’d never get hired these days.”

JPL was making strides even but the help of NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. In Jan 1958, JPL launched the United States’ first satellite. Finley started only a few days before the launch, and never got to work on the history-making mission.

“I wouldn’t have famous what to do after two days,” she laughed.

Finley worked at JPL for 3 years before she took off to help her husband obtain his master’s degree. During her hiatus, she took a free category in programming the Friden calculating machine. When she returned to JPL, her ability helped her make the burst from human mechanism to programmer. From there, she began using the programming denunciation Fortran to work with a new computing machine, a prototype to today’s digital computers. 

“It was flattering much the same, just a opposite machine,” Finley said. “And we used punch cards instead of punching the numbers in ourselves.”

After another year and a half at JPL, she took off 6 years to “have two boys and get them on their way.” Both of her children have grown up and now work in computer-related fields. 

“It’s in the genes,” she said. [‘Rise of the Rocket Girls’ Tells the Stories of NASA’s Women Pioneers]

A prolonged career

Finley worked as a programmer making calculations for booster navigation for several years, she said. In the 1980s, she altered over to work with the Deep Space Network (DSN). The DSN provides a consistent couple to missions in space with 3 stations around the world, any distant by roughly 120 degrees of longitude. NASA and other agencies use the network to send home the information collected by missions.

“If it weren’t for the DSN, there wouldn’t be any scholarship done, since nobody could listen to [the spacecraft],” Finley said.

She also worked with several missions on their entry, skirmish and alighting tones. As a booster approaches its planet, its more-powerful antennas typically are not forked back toward Earth. Instead, some qualification lift a weaker receiver that broadcasts tones of varying frequency, with any tinge signaling a opposite report back to Earth.

“If all goes well, it sends the scold tones and everybody’s happy,” she said.

The first idea to promote these real-time tones was Mars Pathfinder, which carried Sojourner, the first Martian rover. Finley pronounced that the tones worked so good that NASA motionless to use them on all of the more-expensive spacecraft. She pronounced that all of the Mars rovers promote these tones, as does Juno. The Mars 2020 idea and Europa Clipper satellite also devise to send back tones.

So far, Finley said, all of the missions carrying tones have been successful. It wasn’t until missions like the Mars Polar Lander (MPL) unsuccessful that idea designers famous how useful the tones could be. When the lander, headed for Mars’ south pole, crashed into the planet’s surface, promote tones would have told engineers what had left wrong in the mission’s final few minutes. Instead, it took much longer for NASA to establish that the many likely means of the pile-up came from a module blunder mis-identifying vibrations during descent, then shutting down the engines 130 feet (40 meters) above the surface. The central report on the detriment of the lander resolved that the repudiation of tones was “not pardonable in the context of MPL as one component of the ongoing Mars scrutiny program.”

Her favorite idea out of all the ones she has worked on, she said, was the Soviet-French Venera-Gallei (Vega) mission, which forsaken consult balloons into the atmosphere of Venus. As partial of an general tracking network orderly by the French space agency, CNES, the DSN’s antennas communicated with the satellite as the booster trafficked by space. The antennas also perceived signals from the balloons on the Venusian surface over the objects’ two-day lifetime.

Finley pronounced she enjoyed that the idea compulsory only a tiny group at JPL.

“Everything we did was important. Nobody else could do it,” she said. “That’s a good conditions to be in, nonetheless it’s high pressure.” [‘Women of NASA’ Lego Set: QA with Creator Maia Weinstock]

“This old girl is still here!”

Over her 60 years of off-and-on work at JPL, Finley has seen many things change, she said.

“Of course, there’s forever some-more bureaucracy, forever some-more paperwork [now],” she said. Scientific and technological advances have combined to that paperwork. “We can get much some-more finished now, but we have much some-more to do.”

Another transparent sign of the times is the increasing series of womanlike scientists and engineers. “There are a lot some-more women now,” she said.

In her experience, diagnosis of womanlike programmers hasn’t changed, and that’s a good thing, Finley said.

“My personal knowledge has always been that we was treated as an equal colleague, even when we didn’t have an education,” she said. While women secretaries at JPL weren’t given that standing when Finley started, “the women engineers have always been treated well.”

Another change she has seen is the further of a childcare core at JPL for relatives of immature children, something that didn’t exist when her sons were young.

“It was positively my biggest problem,” she said.

She pronounced she would advise immature women who wish to allege as engineers that they should never be fearful to ask questions. Many of the womanlike engineers, as good as the men, don’t like to acknowledge when they don’t know the answers, Finley said. She credits her success in partial to her eagerness to inquire.

“That’s how we get things done. we have to answer questions,” she said. “I have to ask a million questions.”

For both men and women, she advised, “Never be fearful to contend you don’t know — but then go find out.”

Finley pronounced that the series of womanlike managers at JPL has also increasing over her time there.

“Probably since the ‘old child network’ has gotten too old and isn’t here anymore,” she said.

“But this old girl is still here!”

Women at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked as human computers to calculate formidable trajectories and some-more for the center's aerospace research.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

No sign of retirement

Finley distinguished her 81st birthday in October, but pronounced she has no plans to retire.

“Financially, we always figured we had to work until we was at slightest 70,” she said. Then, NASA’s Juno idea came along, and she committed to adhering around until the satellite entered circuit around Jupiter, which the booster did on Jul 5, 2016.

Now, she’s committed to getting the DSN’s new antennas online, she said. Although she’s trafficked to the stations in California, Spain and Australia frequently in her career, she pronounced she isn’t roving as much these days. The 70-meter (230 feet) antennas located at any site are ostensible to be transposed by 4 34-m (112 feet) antennas by 2025.

“There just seems to be something in the future always that they wish me to do,” she said. “And there’s zero at home that we wish to do.”

Finley is one of the longest-serving NASA women, according to Andrew Good, a media family dilettante at JPL. Her career illustrates since it is so formidable to collect out a singular person who can explain to have had the longest career, he said. 

“Honestly, I’m not certain there’s any way to know,” Good said. That’s since you’d have to have a full comment of every womanlike employee who ever worked at any of the 10 NASA centers. Like Finley, many of them took time off to lift children, he said. And like her, utterly a few started operative at NASA centers before the organisation formed, in Oct 1958. 

Still, Finley plans to keep going at NASA, she said.

“My boss says we can’t retire until he does,” she joked. “He’ll retire in 22 years.”

Follow Nola Taylor Redd at @NolaTRedd, Facebook or Google+. Follow us at @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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