The 79-Year-old Space Pioneer Who Helped NASA Track Juno

July 11, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Susan Finley
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Susan began working for NASA more than five decades ago! 

Meet Susan Finley, an engineering specialist who began working on rockets before NASA existed. The 79-year-old is a member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) team, where she was helping to track radio signals from their Juno Spacecraft before it went into orbit around Jupiter on July 4th.  

Juno’s mission started 5 years ago as the spacecraft left Earth to travel to the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter. As Juno approached Jupiter, the craft had to slow down so that it could be captured into orbit around the planet. Finley was tracking faint radio signals known as tones that came from the Juno, which revealed when the craft had finally arrived at Jupiter.  

“It’s a hard signal to track,” Ms. Finley told the New York Times before Juno reached Jupiter. “We do think it’s going to work.”

Radio tones are a useful way to track a spacecraft when its main antenna is not pointing in the direction of Earth, as was the case when Juno arrived at Jupiter.

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Finley’s computer was tracking data that was sent back by Juno and picked up by four radio telescopes in Canberra, Australia.  All the data from the radio signal tones were translated into 36 messages over a 4-hour period to reassure scientists on Earth that Juno had arrived at its destination.

“It has real words in it about what’s happening,” Finley said.

Finley started her post at NASA in January 1958, which was just before the launch of Explorer 1, which saw America’s first satellite successfully launched into space.  She was also involved in the first NASA mission to Jupiter, Pioneer 10. Finley used the tones technique to help land the Mars Pathfinder in 1997 and the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on the red planet back in 2004.

“I debugged the big programs,” Finley told Popular Science.

In college Finley wanted to become an architect, but left after three years because she discovered that it was not for her.  “I couldn’t learn art,” she told the New York Times.

After she left college, she started doing classes in mathematics, from which a great affinity grew, as she later became a human calculator for NASA. During those early years, computers were almost non-existent, and those that existed were very expensive. As Finley had an affinity for numbers, she was capable of doing complicated calculations that the engineers — all men at the time — would hand over to her to solve.

“You just wrote across the top a step-by-step breakdown of how to use the numbers and then down the other side were the numbers you were going to have to try,” Finley recalled. “You just went across, plugging in and clanking away. And then at the end, you gave them the piece of paper with all the answers on it.”

“And you always got an answer,” she said, “unlike a lot of problems in the world that there are no answers to.”

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Throughout Finley’s career she was classified as an engineer, although she never finished her engineering degree.  In 2008, NASA had to alter Finley’s employment status from engineer to Engineering specialist; she retained her salary and standing position.  Although nothing majorly changed, Finley moved over to become an hourly employee. This required her to punch in when she arrives at work and when she leaves, as well as noting down her lunch breaks.

“It’s a demotion,” she said. “No one wants a demotion. We want to be treated like we deserve. But it’s true. I don’t have a degree.” Finley stated.

Finley added, “I think I’m kind of smart, maybe.” Still, finishing a degree was not an option. “I just hate school,” she said. “I love work.”

Now that Juno is finally in orbit around Jupiter and its main antenna is pointing back towards Earth, Finley will return to her regular desk at JPL, waiting for the next mission to come along. Currently Finley has no thoughts of retirement, so we might see her tones technique being used when the next rover lands on Mars in 2021.

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