Remembering Virginia Norwood, the mother of NASA’s Landsat success

Virginia T. Norwood died earlier this year at the age of 96, and NASA’s farewell to this influential pioneer is worth reading. Virginia was a brilliant physicist and engineer, and among her other achievements, we have her to thank for the continued success of the Landsat program, which continues to this day.

The goal of the project was to visualize the earth from space for the purpose of resource management. Landsat 1 was launched with the Multi-Spectral Scanner System (MSS), which Norwood designed to perform this task. At the time, multispectral images were taken from airplanes, but capturing this data from space, let alone determining the wavelengths, and bringing it down to Earth required solving many new and difficult problems.

Four-band MSS launched on Landsat 1 (click to enlarge). Its results were transformative and reinforced the value of multispectral imagery for land and resource management.

Landsat 1’s payload was dominated by a more traditional camera system, so it launched with a dry four-band multispectral imager (down from the original seven), which Norwood and his team shoehorned into the small payload allowed for their system. But nothing convinces like results, and the first ones blew people away. Priorities changed quickly. Multispectral imaging is here to stay.

Norwood spent most of her career at Hughes, and her NASA bio page notes that as a woman she faced significant challenges in her time. There were many otherwise educated men who thought that a woman had no place in technical work and thought nothing of saying so. One male engineer even refused to work with a woman. But Norwood was not only technically skilled, he was also a skilled communicator who could motivate people to do inspired work.

These people skills were important because MSS itself, being a new technology, faced difficult challenges that were compounded by the assumptions those in charge had about how he and his team worked. The MSS, launched on Landsat 1, was a scanning digital imager that constructed four images (one for each layer) as a single bit stream sent from space to Earth and then converted into four separate images. It was a fairly new thing in the late sixties, and even the concept of digital coding met stiff resistance. Also, the mirror approach to scanning used in the MSS was eventually described as “groundbreaking”, but before that it was heavily derided. Every visitor to the site commented on the noise the mechanism made, and each time Norwood reminded them that once in the vacuum of space, no one would hear a thing.

Virginia Norwood’s work on Landsat and MSS are great examples of how physics and mathematics have been applied in transformative ways, and if you’re in the mood for another inspiring example, be sure to check out Gladys West, whose work made GPS possible the

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