When Virginia Norwood was in high school in the 1940s, her guidance counselor advised her to become a librarian instead of a physicist. Luckily, she ignored him. By 1972, Norwood, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate and engineer at Hughes Aircraft Company, had designed a vital component of Landsat, the first satellite launched into space to monitor Earth’s surface. Satellites in the Landsat series still provide valuable data to scientists worldwide and Landsat 9 is expected to launch on 23 September, almost 50 years after the first one.
Norwood’s contribution was the multispectral scanner—a sensor that could be calibrated while in space to detect red, green, and infrared energy reflected from Earth and could transmit data digitally to researchers on the ground. The scanner enabled scientists to track forest loss, crop productivity, and the spread of deserts, and to map inaccessible geological features such as glaciers and ice sheets. “She paved the way for an entire generation of … Earth observation instruments,” says NASA’s Jeffrey Masek, a Landsat project scientist.
Norwood’s device was included in the first several satellites launched through the Landsat program, a joint effort by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Other satellites have since surpassed the Landsat series in resolution and scanning abilities, but the continuity of the Landsat database over the decades makes it a gold standard in Earth imaging.
Norwood will have a front row seat next week when Landsat 9 takes off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base. Celebrations in the nearby town of Lompoc, California, include a “Ladies of Landsat” event, where pioneers including Norwood will tell their stories. She shared some of hers with Science in advance.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What inspired you to pursue math and physics?
A: It just came naturally. I was always interested in mathematical puzzles. Also, my father was very, very important to me in that matter. He was an electrical engineer. [My siblings] fled from it.
Q: How did you get your first break and land an engineering job with the Army Signal Corps?
A: [My husband and I] were visiting my parents and living hand to mouth. I went to a party and met a [U.S. Army] Signal Corps officer who was aware of the [Signal Corps] labs. He said, “Oh, you must come and talk to our people.” And so, we went down, and I was hired immediately.
Q: Wow. That’s surprising.
A: I guess it was. But the government labs could not discriminate against women. 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.
Q: What innovations did you come up with to make the multispectral scanner possible?
A: Each [frequency] band 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.
Q: Some didn’t think digitizing such data would be possible. How did you convince them to try it?
A: I went to [Hughes Aircraft Company CEO Allen] Puckett and I said, “I need $100,000 in order to build a [scanner prototype known as a] breadboard,” and he gave it to me. My management didn’t understand all that I was doing, but people like Puckett were completely devoted to new things.
Q: I’ve read that your multispectral sensor was competing for inclusion in Landsat with a TV camera that recorded only visible light, which would have limited the information available to scientists.
A: Yes, the vidicon from RCA. RCA was a known to NASA. They were very vociferous that theirs was the only way to go. And who in the world could trust this silly batch of detectors?
Q: What was your reaction when the first images came through?
A: I was thrilled. I was confident it would work.
Q: I’ve seen an image of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome taken by a Landsat 1 prototype. How did that come about?
A: 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] was a tremendous hit.
Q: What are your thoughts about Landsat 9? Do you feel part of that?
A: I do. For example, [the Landsat 9 scanner] has thousands of detectors [lined up into] a “push broom” array. I originally would have liked to have done [the first scanner] that way, but I was without a prayer of being able to do it because the [key] technology was not available.
Q: Are you looking forward to watching Landsat 9 launch?
A: Oh, yes. But a launch is, once you’ve seen them, pretty much the same. They sit there—seems to me, forever—and then [at takeoff, the satellite is] moving very slowly. It’s hard to imagine that something going out that slowly is going to hit space, but it does.
Q: There’s now a “Ladies of Landsat” networking group for women and individuals from underrepresented groups involved in remote sensing. What do you think of this program?
A: 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.
Q: Did you ever get discouraged by the challenges that faced women in your field?
A: Oh, heavens. To me, it was all fun. And when something is fun, you just keep at it.
Q: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned over your 94 years?
A: 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.