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Life and Work of Valerie L. Thomas  May 5th, 2014

Ms. Thomas’ high school teachers encouraged her abilities and gave her extra projects. She graduated from high school in about 1961, at a time in our civil rights history when integration was just beginning in the southern U.S. universities. Vivienne Malone-Mayes became the first African American faculty member at Baylor University in this year. (Sullivan, 2002) Valerie stayed in her hometown to go to college at Morgan State University in the mid 1960’s and received a degree in physics in 1964 with highest honors. She then decided to join NASA in 1965 as a mathematician and data analyst. At NASA she worked for more than 10 years on the Landsat image processing system, the first satellite to provide images from outer space. With these images she was able to help predict worldwide crop yields. And with more knowledge analyzed from satellites in space, our technologies have blossomed in the information that can be transmitted and shared all over the world.

As a woman and an African American, Ms. Thomas worked her way up to associate chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office at NASA. And in a fictional children’s book, her invention as described is being seen as the future of television, video games and medical diagnosis. (Abdul-Jabbar, 2012) She retired from NASA in 1995. (Anderson, 2012)

In the late 1980’s, Ms. Thomas was Project Manager for the Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN) through NASA. (See page 8 on this hyperlink which shows Figure 1.  of their locations) SPAN was founded in 1980 by a group of scientists that eventually convinced NASA to fund the tail circuits (the phone lines from a NASA field center to your local computer) through the Office of Space Science Applications (OSSA). After 1988, OSSA established the NASA Science Internet Project Office (NSIPO) at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field California to meet all science communication requirements in OSSA. NSIPO was charged with consolidating diverse networking activities into optimum design to improve connectivity, interoperability and reduce costs and was to demonstrate the use of new technology. Networking activities such as NASA Science Network (NSN), based on TCP/IP protocol were funded from OSSA. Ms. Thomas’ team developed a computer network connecting research stations of scientists all over the globe in countries and continents like the U.S.A., South America, Canada and Europe. Communication and collaboration through technology have been probably a bigger hallmark in her life’s work so far than her invention of the illusion transmitter. It appears that The Security Act of 1987 affected all government and government-funded computer systems that contained sensitive data. SPAN management at the NSSDC at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) at Greenbelt, Maryland was to make available to SPAN system managers a security toolbox that contained software and helpful hints for protecting their computer systems. In March 1989 Ms. Thomas collaborated on a publication for EOS, Volume 70, Issue 13, in SPR News: The focal point for scientists studying solar-planetary relationships about Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, under the Data Systems Users Working Group (DSUWG, also known as SPAN Users Group) titled SPAN: Riding the winds of change. Their report was sent from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. (Zwickl, 1989)

The attention was on changes imposed by NASA that effected this group of network users. NSIPO suggested that a new users working group composed of representatives from all networking activities be formed to offer advice and counsel. They suggested working on a new organizational structure, where DSUWG would not only supply advice but would also set policy. They were concerned about three things: that there was not diverse enough representation by SPAN, that computer networking activities involving TCP/IP should be supported, but that their development and growth should be driven by user demand and that funding must be continually examined from an OSSA requirement. Their point was that money spent on networking would reduce the amount of money available to do research. I don’t know if there was ever a new users group set up, but this balance in budgeting is an ongoing dilemma of most companies and government entities. (Zwickl, 1989)

In January 1987, Valerie L. Thomas wrote a National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC) technical report with James. L. Green titled: SPAN: Astronomy and Astrophysics, along with colleagues Wayne H. Warren, Jr. and Brian Lopez-Swafford at Science Applications Research in Lanham MD. In 1986 SPAN was reconfigured to increase performance and reliability in the communications highway through multiple nodes (starting from three in 1981, in 1987 it supported four major nodes and 13 minor nodes) across the U.S. and Europe. It also linked space plasma physicists at NASA and supported the planetary, astronomy and astrophysics, atmospheric, land, climate and oceans communities. NASA then placed four major observatories in orbit above the filtering atmosphere, so that research could be facilitated through correlative data from these sources. SPAN also supported the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) and Giotto encounters with comets Giacobinii-Zinner and Halley, respectively. The NSSDC also manages the Astronomical Data Center (ADC) which is a cooperative effort with the Laboratory for Astronomy and Solar Physics and together they analyze data and publish documentation which helps support space and ground-based data for space missions and basic scientific research. A Central On-Line Data Directory (CODD) is also maintained by ADC. SIMBAD (set of identifications, measurements and bibliography for astronomical data) was restricted to SPAN access, but now appears online as well for a software retrieval data bank of over 600,000 stars and over 100,000 non-stellar objects as well as identifications and source information and catalogs. Further developments should contain graphics for plotting of star fields and satellite data for individuals. The members of DSUWG gratefully acknowledged the Information Systems Office (ISO) and the Communication and Data Systems Division (CCDSD) at NASA Headquarters for their continued financial support for SPAN. (Thomas V. L., 1987)

During the last five to six years of Ms. Thomas’ employment with NASA (1989-1995), she involved herself in writing about career opportunities for women and African Americans and received her doctorate degree.

In 1993 Ms. Thomas wrote about computer network access to scientific information systems for the American Institute of Physics in an abstract. It spoke about how NASA had supported the development and the application of computer networks, thus providing multi-disciplinary scientific information systems and on-line databases on an even greater extension to others. NSSDC in the Space Data and Computing Division at the Goddard Space Flight Center developed the Minority University-Space Interdisciplinary Network (MU-SPIN) Program: a major networking and education initiative for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Universities (MUs). (Thomas, 1993)

She has received a number of NASA awards including the GSFC (Goddard Space Flight Center) Award of Merit, and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. She continues to mentor young students through the National Technical Association (NTA) and Science Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology (S.M.A.R.T.), Inc.. (web.mit.edu, 2003)

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