Wed, Jul 17, 2019 - Page 7 News List

At 82, NASA pioneer Sue Finley still reaching for stars


Sue Finley smiles during an interview at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on Thursday.

Photo: AFP

Sue Finley began work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the US prepared to launch its first satellite into orbit in 1958, racing to match the Soviet Union, which had accomplished the feat months earlier.

Now 82, she is one of NASA’s longest-serving women, starting out as one of its “human computers,” whose critical yet long-hidden contributions to the space program, including the Apollo missions to the moon, are finally being recognized.

Finley had dropped out of college and joined a group of mathematically gifted individuals, overwhelmingly women, whose job was to solve the complex equations thrown at them by rocket scientists before electronic computing became affordable and reliable.

Neil Armstrong might be remembered for his “giant leap for mankind” when he stepped out onto lunar soil a decade later, but it was the work of these women that helped hone the rocket, invent the propellant, and develop the global antenna network that allowed viewers to watch the crew’s famous live broadcast.

Finley’s story, like many of the other “computers,” is one that speaks to the many challenges faced by women of the time.

Finley had been a math whizz for as long as she could remember, getting straight As at high school, and winning an award for completing chemistry equations in her head faster than others could with slide rules.

However, as a young woman she decided to pursue other interests, majoring in art with the hope of one day becoming an architect.

Her plan failed, because she lacked the required flair, “and you can’t really learn art,” she told reporters.

She got her start as a “computer” at the now-defunct aerospace firm Convair, which worked with the US Navy.

Finley had initially hoped to become a secretary, but flunked the typing test.

“They said: ‘How do you like numbers?’ And I said: ‘Oh, I like numbers much better than letters,’” she laughed.

Not all of the calculations were carried out by hand: She and the other “computers” made use of electro-mechanical adding machines called “Fridens,” although these could handle only basic arithmetic, not the advanced calculus and geometry needed for their work.

After getting married and moving farther from her workplace, she found the long drive was getting taxing.

Her husband, Peter Finley, had graduated from California Institute of Technology, which founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and told her about a lab up in the hills above Pasadena that she should go up and see.

However, why did the JPL hire all-women teams?

“The woman who was in charge of it ... thought that men wouldn’t take instruction from her and so just hired women,” Finley said. “And women are much cheaper, they still are.”

Despite the fact that women could not rise to the rank of engineer at that time, Finley insisted that being a “computer” was still a job that carried prestige.

Finley took a career break from 1963 to 1969 to raise her two young boys — starting a family had always been the plan following the death of the couple’s first son at birth.

However, she soon realized being a homemaker was not the path for her and she became clinically depressed.

“I was a complete failure as a housewife,” she said. “The psychologist that I went to said that I really needed to go back to work” and that the boys would be alright.

While reluctant to tout her own accomplishments, she acknowledged that the decision was unusual for the time.

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