Valerie Thomas

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Valerie Thomas
NASA photograph of Thomas next to a stack of early Landsat Computer Compatible Tapes, 1979[1]
Born (1943-02-08) February 8, 1943 (age 81)
Maryland, United States
Alma mater
Known forInventor of the illusion transmitter
Scientific career

Valerie L. Thomas (born February 8, 1943) is an American data scientist and inventor. She invented the illusion transmitter, for which she received a patent in 1980.[2] She was responsible for developing the digital media formats that image processing systems used in the early years of NASA's Landsat program.[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Thomas was born in Baltimore, Maryland.[4] She graduated from high school in 1961, during the era of integration.[5] She attended Morgan State University, where she was one of two women majoring in physics.[6] Thomas excelled in her mathematics and science courses at Morgan State University, graduating with a degree in physics with highest honors in 1964.[5]


Thomas began working for NASA as a data analyst in 1964.[7][8] She developed real-time computer data systems to support satellite operations control centers (1964–1970). She oversaw the creation of the Landsat program. Her participation in this program expanded upon the works of other NASA scientists in the pursuit of being able to visualize Earth from space.[9]

In 1974, Thomas headed a team of approximately 50 people for the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment (LACIE), a joint effort with the NASA Johnson Space Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. LACIE demonstrated the feasibility of using satellites to automate the process of predicting wheat yield on a worldwide basis.[8]

She attended a science exhibition in 1976 that included an illusion of a light bulb that appeared to be lit, even though it had been removed from its socket. The illusion, which involved another light bulb and concave mirrors, inspired Thomas. In response to her curiosity, she began her researching a potential patent in 1977. This involved creating an experiment in which she observed how the position of a concave mirror would affect the real object that is reflected through it. Through her discovery and experimentation, she would invent an optical device called the illusion transmitter.[6] On October 21, 1980,[7] she obtained the patent for the illusion transmitter, a device NASA currently used and has been adapted for screens on various devices ranging from surgery tools to televisions.[10][11] Thomas became associate chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office at NASA.[12] Thomas's invention has been depicted in a children's fictional book, television, and in video games.[5]

In 1985, as the NSSDC Computer Facility manager, Thomas was responsible for a major consolidation and reconfiguration of two previously independent computer facilities. She then served as the Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN)[13] project manager from 1986 to 1990 during a period when SPAN underwent a major reconfiguration and grew from a scientific network with approximately 100 computer nodes to one directly connecting approximately 2,700 computer nodes worldwide. Thomas' team was credited with developing a computer network that connected research stations of scientists from around the world to improve scientific collaboration.[5]

NASA photograph of Valerie Thomas in 1995

In 1990, SPAN became a major part of NASA's science networking and today's Internet.[8] She also participated in projects related to Halley's Comet, ozone research, satellite technology, and the Voyager spacecraft.

She mentored students in the Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology Inc. program.[14] Thomas often spoke to groups of students from elementary school, secondary, college, and university ages, as well as adult groups. As a role model for her community, she visits schools and national meetings over the years. She has mentored students working in summer programs at Goddard Space Flight Center. She also judged at science fairs, working with organizations such as the National Technical Association (NTA) and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE).[15]

At the end of August 1995, she retired from NASA and her positions of associate chief of the NASA Space Science Data Operations Office, manager of the NASA Automated Systems Incident Response Capability, and as chair of the Space Science Data Operations Office Education Committee.[8]


After retiring, Thomas served as an associate at the UMBC Center for Multicore Hybrid Productivity Research.[16] She also continued to mentor youth through the Science Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology, Inc. and the National Technical Association.[6]

Notable achievements[edit]

Thomas has received numerous awards including the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Smith, Yvette (January 28, 2020). "Dr. Valerie L. Thomas: The Face Behind Landsat Images". NASA.
  2. ^ US patent 4229761, Valerie L. Thomas, "Illusion Transmitter", issued October 21, 1980 
  3. ^ "A Face Behind Landsat Images: Meet Dr. Valerie L. Thomas « Landsat Science". February 28, 2019. Retrieved June 10, 2020.
  4. ^ "VALERIE THOMAS (1943- )". Blackpast. April 21, 2021. Retrieved February 1, 2022.
  5. ^ a b c d "Life and Work of Valerie L. Thomas". Robin Lindeen-Blakeley. Retrieved February 21, 2021.
  6. ^ a b c "Illusion Transmitter". Inventor of the Week. MIT. 2003. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  7. ^ a b "Valerie Thomas". Inventors. The Black Inventor On-Line Museum. 2011. Retrieved November 13, 2011.
  8. ^ a b c d James L. Green (September 1995). "Valerie L. Thomas Retires". Goddard Space Flight Center. Archived from the original on December 19, 1996. Retrieved March 10, 2017.
  9. ^ Smith, Yvette (January 28, 2020). "Dr. Valerie L. Thomas: The Face Behind Landsat Images". NASA. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
  10. ^ "Valerie Thomas - Inventions, NASA, and Facts - Biography". A&E Television Networks. April 12, 2021 [2 April 2014]. Retrieved February 2, 2022. This technology was subsequently adopted by NASA and has since been adapted for use in surgery as well as the production of television and video screens.
  11. ^ "Valerie Thomas | Lemelson". LEMELSON-MIT. MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY. n.d. Retrieved February 2, 2022. NASA uses the technology today, and scientists are currently working on ways to incorporate it into tools for surgeons to look inside the human body, and possibly for television sets and video screens one day.
  12. ^ "Life and Work of Valerie L. Thomas". Robin Lindeen-Blakeley. Retrieved April 28, 2020.
  13. ^ Thomas, Koblinsky, Webster, Zlotnicki, Green (1987). "NSSDC: National Space Science Data Center" (PDF).{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. ^ a b Connolly, Danielle (May 15, 2019). "Make them Mainstream". Make Them Mainstream. Archived from the original on February 1, 2022. Retrieved February 1, 2022.
  15. ^ "Valerie L. Thomas Retires". Retrieved February 25, 2021.
  16. ^ "Little Known Black History Fact: Valerie Thomas". Black America Web. October 27, 2014. Retrieved March 10, 2017.