Valerie Thomas, 1979

NASA photograph of Thomas next to a stack of early Landsat Computer Compatible Tapes, 1979

Valerie L. Thomas (b 1943, Baltimore, MD) is an American data scientist and inventor. She invented the illusion transmitter, for which she received a patent in 1980. She was responsible for developing the digital media formats that image processing systems used in the early years of NASA’s Landsat program.

(An illusion transmitter uses two parabolic mirrors to transmit 3-D illusions of an object by use of a camera trained on the first mirror, which then sends video signals to a projector aimed at the second mirror. She developed it for the purpose of sending three-dimensional images across a distance, making them look as if they are in front of the mirror. As of 2022, the technology is still used by NASA and is being adapted for use in surgery, as well as for televisions and video screens.)

Thomas began working for NASA as a data analyst in 1964. She developed real-time computer data systems to support satellite operations control centers (1964–1970). She oversaw the creation of the Landsat program (1970–1981), becoming an international expert in Landsat data products. Her participation in this program expanded upon the works of other NASA scientists in the pursuit of being able to visualize Earth from space.

Throughout her career, Thomas held high-level positions at NASA including heading the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment (LACIE) collaboration between NASA, NOAA, and USDA in 1974, serving as assistant program manager for Landsat/Nimbus (1975–1976), managing the NSSDC Computer Facility (1985), managing the Space Physics Analysis Network project (1986–1990), and serving as associate chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office. She authored many scientific papers and holds a patent for the illusion transmitter. For her achievements, Thomas has received numerous awards including the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal.

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