Valerie Thomas worked with NASA from 1964 until 1995 in a number of roles, including developing real-time computer data systems, conducting large-scale experiments, and managing numerous operations, programs, and facilities. Thomas’ team led the development of “Landsat,” the first satellite to relay photographs from space while overseeing a project for NASA’s image processing systems.
In 1976, Thomas discovered how to use concave mirrors to give the illusion of a three-dimensional item. If technology could be used to impart this illusion, she thought it would be revolutionary.
Valerie Thomas began working on an illusion transmitter in 1977 with an eye to the future. She patented it in 1980. Concave mirrors are installed on both ends of the transmission during operation. The ultimate result is an optical illusion of a three-dimensional image that appears real to the recipient. Thomas became one of the most well-known black inventors of the twentieth century as a result of this outstanding invention.
NASA continues to use her technology and is looking into methods to incorporate it into surgical instruments, as well as television and video.
Valerie LaVerne Thomas’s Story
Valerie LaVerne Thomas, scientist, mathematician, physicist, and inventor, was born in Baltimore, Maryland on February 1, 1943. Valerie’s parents were her first role models as she grew up in the historic all-Black Cherry Hill community. They instilled in her the value of education, which resulted in “an inquiry-based hands-on learning environment, at home and in the community.”
Dr. Thomas attended Western High School, an all-girls public high school. Myrtle Mack-Dutton, Anastasia Phillips, Alfreda Hughes, June Lee, and Margery Flanagan, Ann Williams, and Ann Fredricka Todd racially integrated the Baltimore magnet school at Howard and Centre streets under police protection in 1954. Thomas enrolled three years later, excelled academically, and developed a physics interest before graduating in 1960.
Julius Henry Taylor, a well-known physics chair at Morgan State College, taught her trigonometry in about 20 minutes. Thomas was hired as a mathematician/data analyst by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) immediately after graduating in 1964. She retired in 1995, having risen to the position of associate chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office.
She created computer data systems to support the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (1964-1970), became an international Landsat image processing data format expert (1970-1981), and led the GSFC team that proved the feasibility of using Landsat data to predict global wheat yield. Dr. Thomas worked at NASA Headquarters as an assistant program manager for Landsat/Nimbus and as a technical officer for a $42 million multi-year technical support contract. She was the computer facility manager at the National Space Science Data Center in 1985 and the project manager for the Space Physics Analysis Network (1986-1990), NASA’s wide area network and a critical component of today’s Internet. Her networking knowledge aided research on Halley’s comet, ozone hole studies, and a supernova.
Dr. Thomas received the Illusion Transmitter patent in 1980, which provides a holographic image that is visible without the use of special glasses. George Washington University awarded her a master’s degree in Engineering Administration (1985). Thomas earned a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership/Ed Tech from the University of Delaware under the supervision of Fred T. Hofstetter (2004).
During 2021 Black History Month, hip-hop artist Chance The Rapper reintroduced Thomas to a younger generation by tweeting her name, image, and scientific contributions to his 8.2 million followers. She has received NASA’s GSFC Award of Merit, authored numerous scientific technical reports, and received an honorary doctorate from Monmouth University (1993).
Dr. Valerie L. Thomas was a significant scientific pioneer who inspired many people, particularly Black women, to pursue careers in STEM fields. She currently lives in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where she works as a substitute teacher and is involved with STEM organizations like Science, Mathematics, Aerospace, Research, and Technology, Inc., and SHADES OF BLUE.