Sue Finley

By Erik M. Conway
From "NASA's 50 Year Men and Women"

The human computer - Susan G. Finley was hired to perform trajectory computations for rocket launches by hand.

Sue Finley.jpg

Susan G. Finley, NASA’s longest-serving woman, was hired as a “computer” by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in January 1958, one week before JPL launched Explorer 1, America’s first satellite. Her initial job was performing trajectory computations for rocket launches by hand. She had a number of career changes at JPL as digital computers eliminated the need for hand calculations. She is now a software tester and subsystem engineer.

One of her earliest memories at JPL is of the flight of Pioneer 3, launched on Dec. 6, 1958. She was called in to calculate velocities from telemetry data when the digital computer that was supposed to do it failed. “I punched this data into the Frieden [calculator] as Al Hibbs relayed it to me from his telephone connection with the receiving antenna. I went home around 6:00 a.m. after everyone realized that it hadn’t reached escape velocity, so it wasn’t going to leave orbit. My husband was up watching the news. They had a little blackboard with the numbers on it I had calculated. I said ‘that’s my number!’”

She left JPL twice during the next few years, first to support her husband’s education, and then, after a brief period back at the lab, to have children. She returned permanently in 1969. Through most of the 1970s, she worked on a variety of advanced mission studies, calculating trajectories and orbits for a variety of potential future missions. By the end of the decade, this work, too, was being taken over by electronic computers.

In 1980, she began writing software for the Deep Space Network (DSN). The Deep Space Network, operated by JPL for NASA, tracks and receives data from all United States and many foreign interplanetary spacecraft. Finley’s major software effort was for the “Delta DOR” upgrade, which improved navigational accuracy by using quasars as fixed reference points in space. Delta DOR stands for Delta Differential One-way Range. Then she coordinated DSN support to the two joint USSR/France Vega missions to Venus and Halley’s comet. In the late 1980s, she became a task manager for another upgrade to the Deep Space Network. This improved its utility for very long baseline interferometry, a technique that links several radio antennas into a single, much more powerful one. She enjoyed this project – except for the budgeting.

The women of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory helped launch the first American satellites, lunar missions and planetary explorations. Those "human computers," as they were called, are seen here in 1953. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

The women of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory helped launch the first American satellites, lunar missions and planetary explorations. Those "human computers," as they were called, are seen here in 1953. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the early 1990s, Finley returned to software. She performed many tasks during the next 15 years, but one stands out in her memory – software she helped develop for the Mars Exploration Rover missions. These used a “semaphore-like” communications method during their plunge through the Mars atmosphere. The spacecraft’s transmitter sent back specific tones, or musical notes, by radio after each phase of the descent. Finley’s software received the signals from the DSN and interpreted them so the projects’ engineers would know what was going on. This task took her out to the Goldstone and Tidbinbilla stations during the landings, so she missed all the press attention the missions received.

She laughed, “They’re always focused on the control room at JPL. People really doing the work don’t get on TV.” Finley currently is involved with developing an improved version of the semaphore software for the Mars Science Laboratory mission in 2009, in addition to her subsystem and software testing duties. In her half century at JPL, she has most enjoyed “being part of exploring the universe, space, our solar system.” Finley still enjoys her work, and she has no plans to retire “unless things start to get really boring.”

Sue finley:

By the Book-Book Club Host profile

Q: What are you reading or listening to now?
A: I do belong to a book club and we're reading The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I always listen to classical music on KUSC.

Q. What is your favorite genre? Who are your favorite writers in that genre?
A: I really like mysteries about foreign places. I really like Elizabeth George. But mysteries aren't good for book club discussions, I don't think.


Q: Which genres do you avoid?
A: Science fiction, romance, and biographies (too long).

Q: What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
A: Douglas Adams's collection.

Q: How do you organize your bookshelf?
A: When I first did that, it was type, travel history, cooking, etc. Now I just pile up my bookclub books as I buy them from Alibris.

Q: What was the most influential book you have read?
A: The Feminine Mystique

Q: Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?
A: Some of Jane Austin's.

Q: You're organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
A: I can't even imagine, it would be too difficult to speak at their level.

Sue Finley in the LATimes:

By Samantha Masunaga Jun 18, 2017
Video by Allen J. Schaben

Hired in 1958 as a 'computer,' Sue Finley talks about her long career at JPL

"Sue Finley, 80, has worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge for more than 50 years. She was first hired in 1958 as a “computer,” an employee who calculated mathematical equations, such as rocket or spacecraft trajectories, by hand. She has worked on a number of projects throughout her career, including the Venus Balloon Project, Mars Exploration Rover missions and the Juno mission. Today, she is a subsystem and test engineer for NASA’s Deep Space Network."

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