How I Made It Hired in 1958 as a ‘computer,’ Sue Finley talks about her lengthy profession at JPL

4 Mins read

Sue Finley, 80, has worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge for extra than 50 years. She changed into first employed in 1958 as a “laptop,” an employee who calculated mathematical equations, including rocket or spacecraft trajectories, by hand. She has labored on some of the initiatives at some point in her professions, such as the Venus Balloon Project, Mars Exploration Rover missions, and the Juno project. Today, she is a subsystem and takes a look at engineers for NASA’s Deep Space Network.

A knack for numbers

Finley was born in downtown Los Angeles and later moved to her circle of relatives to Fresno at age 6. She came again to Southern California to wait for Scripps College in Claremont and intended to research art. But Finley left college earlier than her final yr after figuring out that “you may examine artwork” and that she wouldn’t be able to do a senior thesis at the challenge.


She decided that she couldn’t waste her mom’s money and rather scanned newspaper commercials for jobs. Finley ultimately got here through a gap for a document clerk at aircraft maker Convair in Pomona. She took a typing check and instructed the following day that the placement had already been filled. But Finley was asked if she preferred numbers. “I said, ‘Oh, I love numbers, a whole lot better than letters,’ ” she stated. “So they placed me to work as a laptop.”

Closer shuttle

Finley used a Frieden calculator — a typewriter-sized digital gadget — to clear up equations for the engineers in Convair’s thermodynamics segment for about a yr. She got married in 1957 and moved to San Gabriel. During one particularly foggy go back and forth to Pomona, she determined that it might be higher to get a job towards domestic. Her husband, a latest Caltech grad, advised that she inquire on the university’s lab at the top of the Arroyo — the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which became then subsidized using the U.S. Army. NASA had no longer yet been set up. JPL wanted a laptop, and Finley changed into hiring. Three days later, the U.S. Space program took a giant star forward via launching its first satellite tv for PC, Explorer 1, which become designed, built and operated using JPL.


“What I consider become this wonderful large sheet cake that all of us were given,” Finley stated. “And there weren’t that many people working at JPL [at the time] that they may use just one sheet cake.”

Programming revel in

Finley worked at JPL for 2½ years until she and her husband moved to Riverside to attend graduate college on the UC. Jobs have been scarce for the duration of the recession of 1960 to 1961, so a posting on a university bulletin board caught her eye: a unfastened weeklong elegance in Fortran programming.

After her husband finished his master’s application, they moved to Pasadena and Finley back to JPL in 1962, armed with her new know-how. She was one in every of only a few humans at the lab who knew Fortran. Today, one of the applications that Finley wrote to assist navigate spacecraft remains getting used at JPL, even though with a bit of an upgrade. Oh, I love numbers, a good deal higher than letters. Sue Finley Camaraderie at JPL.

Finley left JPL once more in 1963 to take care of her two sons, but again six years later for proper. By her 1/3 flip, there had been more girls on the lab, and the human computers had largely transitioned into roles as laptop programmers. The ladies cast near ties, and Finley stated they were all “excellent buddies, and still are.” By the Nineteen Seventies, the girls who had been computer systems had left their separate all-girl workplace and were incorporated into diverse mission groups. “The men usually, from the very starting, treated us as equals,” Finley said. “We had been doing something they couldn’t do, and they had to cross ahead with what they have been doing.”

Most memorable venture

In 1980, Finley started out working on NASA’s Deep Space Network — a device of massive radio antennas around the sector that connects with spacecraft on interplanetary missions and some spacecraft that orbit Earth.


One of these missions changed into the Venus Balloon Project, throughout which two Russian space probes, on their way to Halley’s Comet, deployed two balloons into Venus’ environment in 1985 to acquire facts approximately the environment. Although the assignment was a joint Soviet-French project, the JPL-operated DSN, because it’s recognized, was tracking the spacecraft. Finley was accountable for writing a program that computerized movement commands for a DSN antenna. The antenna needed to be pointed exactly at the spacecraft to acquire any facts from it. “I can do not forget when we saw the first sign inside the darkroom, I absolutely jumped up and down because I turned into so satisfied,” Finley stated.

Tuning up

Finley helped layout the tones — special units of radio frequencies emitted by using a spacecraft that correspond with moves taken, such as a valve establishing — for the Juno challenge, which entered Jupiter’s orbit last year. NASA depended on the tones to get actual-time reputation updates on Juno whilst the spacecraft changed into pointed far away from the Earth and could not send normal telemetry because the signal was too weak. “That turned into virtually a laugh,” Finley stated.

Current work

Today Finley is assisting in designing and looking at a brand new, pizza field-sized receiver for the DSN. She is also working on a concept that would allow small satellites to transmit statistics by intercepting the beam of a bigger spacecraft’s antenna. She has no plans to retire. “I love coming to paintings,” Finley stated. “You analyze something new each day.”


Finley lives in Arcadia and likes going to the symphony, the ballet, and performing in the theater. She additionally enjoys traveling and journeying with her four grandchildren, who live in St. Louis and Andover, Mass.

839 posts

About author
Travel maven. Twitter trailblazer. Explorer. Thinker. Certified problem solver. Tv buff. Subtly charming entrepreneur. Avid alcohol fan. Food enthusiast. Managed a small team training race cars with no outside help. Garnered an industry award while donating sheep with no outside help. Spent several years supervising the production of fatback in Orlando, FL. Gifted in deploying wool in Suffolk, NY. Spent childhood managing shaving cream in Ocean City, NJ. Won several awards for buying and selling soap scum in Libya.
    Related posts

    The History of Computers

    3 Mins read
    While computers at the moment are an important part of the lives of human beings, there was a time wherein computers did…

    Computer Knowledge

    2 Mins read
    Advancement in ICT (Information Communication Technology, has made the sector regarded as a worldwide village. Regional economies, societies, and cultures have to…

    Computer Viruses and How to Deal With Them

    3 Mins read
    1- What is a computer virus: A pc virus is a software program capable of the mirror itself and unfolds from one…