Eyes on Earth Episode 62 - Landsat Launch Part 3

Detailed Description

For our third and final episode of Eyes on Earth from the September launch of Landsat 9, we hear from Virginia Norwood. She blazed a trail for women in remote sensing in the 1960s and 70s while working for Hughes Aircraft, a contractor for NASA. Norwood is known as the “Mother of Landsat” for her design of the Multispectral Scanner, or MSS, the sensor used to image the Earth’s surface by early Landsat satellites. Norwood met her fans during a Q&A a few hours after the launch sponsored by the USGS and Ladies of Landsat. The episode also features an appearance from Kass Green, who founded a company in the 1980s that used Landsat data to map landscape change.

Episode:
62
Length:
00:18:48

Public Domain.

Transcript

JOHN HULT:
Hello everyone, and welcome to one more special episode of Eyes on Earth. We're a podcast that focuses on our ever-changing planet and on the people at EROS and across the globe who used remote sensing to monitor and study the health of Earth. I'm your host, John Hult. For our third and final show from the September launch of Landsat 9, we're going to hear from a legend. Virginia, Norwood blazed a trail for women in remote sensing and the 1960s and 70s while working for Hughes Aircraft, a contractor for NASA. Norwood is known as the "Mother of Landsat" for her design of the multi-spectral scanner, or MSS, which is the sensor used to image the Earth by early Landsat satellites.
The first MSS collected data across four bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, but was considered experimental when it launched on board Landsat 1 in 1970. The primary sensor was a return beam vidicon camera. Within weeks, problems with that system forced a switch to the MSS. Before long, it was clear that the MSS was the better choice.
Norwood's sensor captured bands of light that are invisible to the naked eye, which made it possible to monitor things like crop health or wildfire scars with greater clarity. Norwood's approach set the stage for the next 50 years of Landsat censored. Norwood is 94 years old now, but she hasn't slowed down much a few hours after attending the Landsat nine launch.
She sat down for a public Q and A with Dr. Kate Fickas, a Mendenhall fellow at EROS and a co-founder of the outreach group Ladies of Landsat. She also took questions from other women in remote sensing at the event, you'll hear Kate, Virginia, and Virginia, his daughter, Naomi, in this excerpt from their conversation.
Be sure to listen through to the end to hear from another trailblazer in remote sensing. Kate's first question, by the way, was about Virginia's upbringing. We'll take it.
VIRGINIA NORWOOD:
I'm an army brat. I went to many grade schools, four or five high schools and danced around as it were. My father was an army officer in the signal Corps labs and had a technical background.
And so I was always immersed in those things at home.
KATE FICKAS:
How did moving around affect you?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
It, uh, inured me to new situations. I certainly wasn't afraid of a new situation, so that was probably helpful.
FICKAS:
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Yes.
FICKAS:
What was, what was his field?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Physics.
FICKAS:
And did you enjoy talking physics?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Definitely. Yeah.
FICKAS:
So was he an inspiration for you to go on later into your career?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Oh, I would say so.
FICKAS:
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
She was sort of a late bloomer. She discovered in her thirties that she had a real aptitude for language. She learned German, then she learned Russian, then she learned Spanish. And it was about then that she said to me, 'you know, each one gets easier.'
And to me that was absolutely impossible to believe because I'm a dullard with languages.
FICKAS:
A lot of the Ladies of Landsat that we've interviewed, and myself included, and I I'm sure a lot of people here, had really influential mentors and teachers growing up. Did you have any through high school or university, like Mr. Graph's aeronautics class?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Oh, yes. That was helpful.  They invented that class during the war because they wanted to prepare young men get to go into the service. I learned vectors and all kinds of things that I might not have learned that early.
FICKAS:
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
She was a very interesting person in that she had a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania when that just was not done.
FICKAS:
Yeah. Does she hold her own against male colleagues or other discrimination?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Oh, I would say so.
FICKAS:
So you went through high school, you had your aeronautics class, you decided MIT was the only place for you?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Well, I thought it was the best and I still do, by the way, I mean, for that time.
FICKAS:
you didn't think about maybe Cal Tech or other technical schools? It was always MIT?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Cal Tech didn't take women. MIT only took women because they were a land grant school. The law required it. I don't know any first line technical school that did except MIT.
FICKAS:
Were there many other women there?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Oh no. There were 12 in my class. And there must've been 500 to a thousand men. We were in a real minority.
FICKAS:
Did you have any mentors, specifically at MIT, that helped you along?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Various faculty members. I really appreciated like Dr. Strurik and RaphaÎl Salem. The department was marvelous.
FICKAS:
Oh, that's great.
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
I didn't get the feeling that they differentiated because one was a woman.
FICKAS:
That's actually pretty revolutionary for that time, especially if MIT was the only one taking women, if they treated you equally.
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Yeah, I thought so.
FICKAS:
Having an MIT degree enable you to go further in your career path, you think?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
I think it was very important.
FICKAS:
How so?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
I'm not going to say that that education was necessarily any better, but having a named school meant that people paid attention.
FICKAS:
I learned that you received your degree in three years. You were done when you were 20. Did you start looking for a job right away?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
I did. And it was there being a woman was a severe disadvantage. They asked me what salary I would require.
NAOMI NORWOOD:
Of course.
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
And I had decided to use a P1, for civil service, and it was $2,400 a year at that point. FICKAS: Okay. VIRGINA NORWOOD: And, uh, I mentioned this salary level and the head of personnel said, 'no woman in our factory has ever made more than 1,700.' FICKAS: Did you keep pushing? VIRGINA NORWOOD: Not with them. FICKAS: They were done. VIRGINA NORWOOD: I was not interested. Remington offered me a job. They called up and they said to my husband on the phone, "your wife has convinced us that we should hire a physicist." Or a mathematician, maybe he said. "We think it's a great idea. We're going to look for a man. FICKAS: So you created the position for them, you told them what they needed, and then they called your husband and said, "you didn't get the job, we're hiring a man." VIRGINA NORWOOD: Yes. FICKAS: That must've been ... devastating? VIRGINA NORWOOD: Damned irritating. FICKAS: Some people get mad, some people get sad. I can tell you it probably made you more of a fighter. Did it, did it discourage you at all? VIRGINA NORWOOD: Probably. I don't think so. FICKAS: Where did you end up after Remington? VIRGINA NORWOOD: Well, I taught at the new Haven Junior College of Commerce, and as I recall, worked for a pittance, I, uh, then met an officer who had been an old friend of my father's at a cocktail party. And he said, "Well, you ought to come to our labs." The Signal Corps Engineering Labs that were down in Belmar, New Jersey. I went down there, and they offered me a job and I took it. FICKAS: That's great. VIRGINA NORWOOD: Yes. FICKAS: What were your roles there? VIRGINA NORWOOD: I first started in weather radar. I knew nothing about it, except that I knew what a radio song was, and that was about it. And my first task was to devise a radar target that could be tracked at a higher altitude than what they had. So I have a radar reflector, which I have a patent on. They were able to track it to 100,000 feet. FICKAS: Oh wow. NORWOOD: And the meteorologists, they really wanted that upper air winds. FICKAS: Must've been brand new technology at that point. VIRGINA NORWOOD: It was, yeah. FICKAS: It was probably the beginning of modern meteorological satellites. VIRGINA NORWOOD: Definitely. Yeah. And then of course Hughes later did the cloud mapper, but I didn't have much to do with that. FICKAS: But we're all glued into, we look at what our, what the weather's going to be on our cell phones every morning. Impressive that you were at the beginning of that, that type of technology. And I imagine it's probably validating to be able to use your experience, even though you said you didn't have, he didn't have any weather and weather radar, radar satellites, but you charged forward. VIRGINA NORWOOD: Well, I read and picked up stuff, of course. FICKAS: Of course. It makes me happy that finally someone took you seriously and we were able to get some really cool remote sensing techniques. VIRGINA NORWOOD: Hughes was a great place to work in those days. They gave everybody his opportunity to decide what to pursue. FICKAS: You had autonomy and what direction you might go? VIRGINA NORWOOD: Exactly. FICKAS: At Hughes, did you feel discriminated against at all? Or did you feel like you were regarded in the same way as your male colleagues? VIRGINA NORWOOD: I thought I was properly treated. I was the first woman who was a member of the technical staff. FICKAS: That must've been exciting. VIRGINA NORWOOD: Yes. FICKAS: After Dr. Rodman, did you ever have another female mentor? Did you ever have any women above you? VIRGINA NORWOOD: No. There were so few. FICKAS: So we can probably shift to what everybody, we've had at least for autographs here, for the multi-spectral scanner. Did someone at Hughes assign you to work on MSS? VIRGINA NORWOOD: No, no. I just heard people at Goddard who were thinking about what you can do from space. They were so helpful in rounding up users and also the USGS. FICKAS: Did you have free reign of your design? Did you have a budget that you had to stick to? VIRGINA NORWOOD: My company, when they heard there was interest, gave me$100,000 and said, "make a model."

FICKAS:
That's a pretty big chunk of change for back then.
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
It sure was.  And, uh, we flew the first prototype.
FICKAS:
Did you have an "aha" moment designing the MSS? Where you knew this was going to be revolutionary using this type of technology from space?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
I was really surprised. I think I was as surprised as the users and how valuable of the data turned out to be.
FICKAS:
That's wonderful. You designed it first and then said, 'Hey, this is, pretty cool.'
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
And people are so proud when they only had a new use.
FICKAS:
Were there technical challenges that came up during design or implementing?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
FICKAS:
Yeah.
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
And today they have so many detectors to contend with. I had 24.
FICKAS:
So you were involved with Landsat through Landsat 4, were you able to transfer any of your technology or knowledge from multi-sectoral scanner to the thematic mapper on the later Landsats?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
I designed the thematic mapper first.
FICKAS:
Okay.
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
And we didn't have the weight allowance. We were only allocated a few pounds.
FICKAS:
Okay.
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
And so then when the RBVs didn't give them the multi-spectral information they needed, they tossed them and we got a better allowance and we then we could put the big, the bigger one aboard.
FICKAS:
Once you got those later those later clearances?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Mm-hmm.
FICKAS:
I didn't know that. So the thematic mapper came first. MSS just happened to be ...
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Then I downsized it.
FICKAS:
Very interesting.
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
It was really just a shrinking and fewer bands.
FICKAS:
Got it.
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
They only had the M three visible and the one near IR.
FICKAS:
Did you always know that MSS was going to be something special? Or did you just kind of close your eyes and hope it would be?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Well, I had worked on a lot of different satellites and no, I wouldn't have picked that one out as the winner. Which has turned out to be by the way, among, among my other experiences.
FICKAS:

VIRGINA NORWOOD:
The other satellites.
FICKAS:
I mean, I think that the beginning of multispectral, remote sensing in general, so I would say it's beyond a winner. I think everybody, everybody here with applaud the concept of putting the MSS into space. We just watched the launch of Landsat 9. Back in 72, could you have envisioned that we would be 50 years later, still on the same Landsat mission, looking at data continuity?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
I would not have.
FICKAS:
Why do you think that is?

VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Because of the use, and because of the users. You cannot exaggerate how important the users have been.
FICKAS
Did you ever doubt your career path or did you always know this is what you wanted to do?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
I always knew that was it. It was all I was good at.
FICKAS:
I highly doubt that. But do you think it was your dad that started that early bug in your ear about physics that pushed you forward?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Oh, I'm sure he did.
FICKAS:
Do you have any advice for the women that are currently involved in Ladies of Landsat or women in remote sensing, women in physics, women in computer science?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
I would say, just keep abreast of your field, keep learning. Don't ever think you've finished.

FICKAS:
I don't have any other questions for you. You've been very gracious, but I think we do also have potentially some questions from the audience if you're open to it.
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Sure. I'll try.
FICKAS:
Anybody, anybody want to offer a question for Virginia?
KASS GREEN:
You were the first woman, you said, at Hughes. Did other women come along, or was it a big gap for a lot of years?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
It's trickled very slowly. As I say, I was the first, and then years later we had about five. I think it's just in the engineering fields alone where now something like 48% in the country. So it's been a very slow.
SILVIA WILSON:
So, what advice would you give little girls?
NAOMI NORWOOD:
What advice did you give Reva?
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Oh dear. That's my granddaughter. She claimed that I gave her all sorts of advice, which I forgot.
NAOMI NORWOOD:
VIRGINA NORWOOD:
Well, I have discovered that people who say, "oh, I hate math. I've never been able to do it. Never learned fractions. As Naomi said, it's sort of a hobby horse, teaching people, fractions that they should be. That's what they should learn.
FICKAS:
We can set up a booth for you over here.
HULT:
After the Q and a with Norwood, we caught up with another influential. Kass Green founded a company in the 1980s to map forests with Landsat. She advocated for and helped to write the Land Remote Sensing Policy act of 1992, which moved the Landsat program back into the public domain after private management.

She also co-founded and chaired the Department of Interior's Landsat Advisory Group. Here's what Kass had on her mind after hearing from Virginia Norwood on the afternoon of the launch about what makes Landsat 9 and the Landsat program so special and so necessary,
GREEN:
More than anything the continuity. So it's because all Landsats are really important, because we get this total view of the world over 50 years, that that continuity just creates so much science, but for policy it's critically important, for us to see what we've done to the Earth with humans. And then the natural disasters also.
HULT:
Why couldn't we just use some of these new satellites that are flying all over?
GREEN:
They're not calibrated the way Landsat is, and even if they were calibrated, we can't cede our intellectual assets all the time. The United States needs to have this.
HULT:
You worked to bring Landsat back into the public sphere. Is that right?
GREEN:
That's right.
HULT:
Can you tell us a little bit about that?
GREEN:
Well, you know, my husband and I had just started our company, using Landsat to create products for all kinds of different organizations. And I got a call. Somebody who said, "we need people to come to the Hill and talk about Landsat and how they're using Landsat. So I went back to Washington D.C. and I testified our work. Our work was mapping spotted owl habitat for the Forest Service. And then I, I just got more and more involved, and ended up writing a little teeny part of the bill. And being very involved in bringing it back into the government sector, it's where it belongs. It never belonged in the private sector. I think we all realized that was a huge mistake. Every now and again it still comes up, you know, "oh, this should be done by the private sector." It's like, no, no, this is a public good that we need.
HULT:
And this was in 1992, the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992. And you had a company working with remote sensing in 1992. How many women were running companies in the remote sensing in 1992?
GREEN:
None. Well, one. Me.
HULT:
So what does an event like this mean to you, to see all of these women at a table, talking about their work?
GREEN:
Oh, it's just wonderful. And to see Virginia. I mean, we never heard about her. My husband actually worked for Bob Caldwell, who was the scientist on the very first EROS. And nobody ever knew who Virginia was. She was never mentioned, because they just didn't mention women, you know? So to see her and then see all these young scientists with her and how inspiring she is ... She's like a star in the sky, you know, you just want to follow her everywhere she goes.
HULT:
What are the most exciting directions that the Landsat program will go in? And where will people take from the Landsat Program?
GREEN:
I don't think we know the most exciting application. That's the one that has always been incredible to me is been the change detection. But now that's old hat. We started doing change detection in the early 90s, people said 'Oh, you can put two images together and look at them?' People hadn't even thought about it. The most exciting application is, is something that I don't have an imagination to capture.
HULT:
Anything else that people need to know on this, on this day, the day of the launch of Landsat 9? Anything on your mind?
GREEN:
Yeah, they have to support Landsat Next. There's never been a time, like now, where there's so many users of Landsat, but they need to be engaged. They need to work with their representatives to make sure that there is Landsat next, and a next, and a next.
HULT:
Thanks for listening to this episode of Eyes on Earth. Be sure to join us next time to learn more about satellites, remote sensing, land change, and much more. You can find all our shows on our website. That's usds.gov/EROS. That's U-S-G-S forward slash E-R-O-S. You can also subscribe on Apple podcasts or Google podcasts.
This podcast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of Interior.

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