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Virginia Norwood, who mapped the Earth as ‘mother of Landsat,’ dies at 96

Virginia Norwood, a pioneering aerospace engineer who used design innovations, emerging technologies and seasoned intuition in projects that scanned the lunar surface for safe Apollo landing sites and mapped the Earth from space with digital imagery never before seen, died March 26 at her home in Topanga, Calif. She was 96.

Ms. Norwood’s daughter, Naomi Norwood, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.

Over a four-decade career that began with slide rules and moved into the age of computer modeling, Ms. Norwood became known as a resourceful problem solver who often hit upon simple but effective solutions. She was also usually the only woman on the team — with at least one male colleague in the 1950s at Hughes Aircraft quitting rather than work under her leadership.

He later returned to the company and asked to work with Ms. Norwood. She turned him down.

With an Army Signal Corps team in the late 1940s, her group was stuck over how to measure wind speed in the upper stratosphere above 100,000 feet, readings critical in developing long-range weather forecasting. Ms. Norwood came up with a device made of reflective disks — suspended on fishing-line swivels — that would spin on a weather balloon and could be tracked by radar. The idea was patented under her name.

In the 1960s, when Ms. Norwood was at Hughes, she faced a puzzle over a planned satellite that became known as Landsat 1: how to keep the Earth-scanning equipment from breaking under the stress of constant movement. She sought out Hughes’s “resident inventor,” S.D. “Webb” Howe, who decided the entire scanner wouldn’t move, just mirrors would.

Under Ms. Norwood’s direction, Howe designed a separate pivoting mirror that swayed back and forth at 13 times per second in the weightlessness of space. Each time it rocked, the mirror collected more data from the light spectrum, both visible and invisible, and fed it into the scanner.

Not everyone was on board. “They knew that there was a banging mirror,” Ms. Norwood told the MIT Technology Review. “They just felt that was too crude.”

But it worked. The launch of the satellite in July 1972 was a crowning achievement for Ms. Norwood. She became known as the “mother of Landsat” and credited with helping bring a completely new perspective and understanding of the planet and its interlocking features and ecosystems.

Ms. Norwood’s Multispectral Scanner — capturing visible colors and other wavelengths not picked up on normal equipment such as infrared — took the existing satellite imagery beyond just looking at the surface. Her scanner brought insights into aspects such as water quality, crop health, soil moisture and snowpack density.

For the first time, digital data was available that allowed preventive action: spotting tree blights in early stages or providing comprehensive information on watersheds for crop planning and flood protection. NASA later said it was the first digital data transmission from space.

For today’s researchers, the images from the early generations of Landsat satellites offer important baseline records to assess climate change, shoreline erosion, rainforest loss and other shifts.

“I’d go to meetings and people were just jumping up and down because they had discovered another use for the data,” Ms. Norwood recalled.

She already had triumphs on the moon under her belt. The lunar probe Surveyor 1, which touched down in June 1966, was NASA’s first craft to make it safely to the moon’s surface. Surveyor 1 and the subsequent Surveyors during the 1960s were scouts seeking basic questions: What was the moon’s crust like, and where were the best potential spots to land a crewed mission?

“They didn’t want the man to fall down a crack in the moon,” Ms. Norwood recalled.

Her job, along with the microwave group she led at Hughes, was to develop transmitters and receivers on Surveyor to pick up NASA’s commands. Among the many complications, space was tight. Surveyor was compact, and the communications system had to be, too.

Ms. Norwood found the answer in the design of flowers: an antenna that opened up from a tight bud into a parabola-shaped dish. That became her second patent.

In 2020, a NASA interviewer asked Ms. Norwood if she was comfortable with the sobriquet “mother of Landsat.”

Ms. Norwood didn’t hesitate. “Yes. I like it, and it’s apt,” she said. “I created it. I birthed it, and I fought for it.”

Virginia Monroe Tower was born at Fort Totten, in the New York City borough of Queens, on Jan. 8, 1927. Her father was an Army officer, and her mother tended to the home but also studied mathematics and languages on her own.

The family moved regularly because of military postings in Oklahoma (where she was in a Girl Scout troop led by Gen. George S. Patton’s daughter, Ruth), Panama and Bermuda. The family then went to Pittsburgh when her father took a position teaching physics at Carnegie Institute of Technology, now part of Carnegie Mellon University. (Her father made her first slide rule when she was in grade school.)

She enrolled in 1943 at MIT, one of about a dozen women in her class. She later called it navigating a “sea of men.” She graduated in 1947 with a degree in mathematical physics.

Soon after getting her diploma, she married her former calculus instructor at MIT, Lawrence Norwood.

Ms. Norwood said she was turned down by many employers for tech-related positions, presumably because of her gender. At Sikorsky Aircraft, she walked away after being asked to promise not to get pregnant if she took a job in food services. At one point, she worked at a department store in New Haven, Conn., hiding her having been an MIT graduate.

In 1948, she and her husband were offered a job at the Army’s Signal Corps laboratories in New Jersey. The couple moved to Southern California in 1953, where the weather was better to indulge in Ms. Norwood’s passion for sports cars. (Her last car, a blue six-speed Mazda Miata, was driven until Ms. Norwood couldn’t renew her license during the pandemic.)

In California, Ms. Norwood first worked for Sylvania Electronic Defense Labs and set up its antenna test range, and then joined Hughes. After she was put in charge of the microwave group in the company’s missile lab in 1957 — the first woman in the role — a male co-worker quit. He was rehired at Hughes, but Ms. Norwood rejected his request to return to her team.

Ms. Norwood also led the design of the transmitter and microwave receiver for the world’s first communications satellite, Syncom 2, used in the first two-way satellite call between government leaders when President John F. Kennedy in Washington chatted with Nigeria’s prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, in 1963.

Ms. Norwood retired in 1989. Among her awards was the O.M. Miller Cartographic Medal from the American Geographical Society in 2022 for her Landsat imaging system that “transformed expectations of how we can know the Earth.”

Her first marriage ended in divorce. She later married Maurice Schaeffer, who died in 2010. A son from her first marriage, David Norwood, died in 2012.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include another child from her first marriage, Peter Norwood; three stepchildren, David Schaeffer, Andrew Schaeffer and Claudia Schaeffer; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Landsat goes on: now up to Landsat 9. There’s also a “Ladies of Landsat” group for women who have worked in the program over the decades since Ms. Norwood.

“I’ve spent my life where I was the only woman in a program,” Ms. Norwood told Science in 2021. “Now, there’s a whole group of them. That’s kind of nice.”

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