Valerie Thomas (1943- )

Valerie Thomas, 1979
Valerie L. Thomas standing with Landsat Computer Compatible Tapes, 1979
Courtesy NASA

Valerie LaVerne Thomas, scientist, mathematician, physicist, and inventor, was born on February 1, 1943 in Baltimore, Maryland. Reared in the historic all-Black Cherry Hill community, Valerie’s parents were her first role models. They instilled in her the importance of education that resulted “in an inquiry-based hands-on learning environment, in the home and community.”

Dr. Thomas attended the all-girls public Western High School. The Baltimore magnet school at Howard and Centre streets was racially integrated under police protection in 1954 by Myrtle Mack-Dutton, Anastasia Phillips, Alfreda Hughes, June Lee and Margery Flanagan, Ann Williams, and Ann Fredricka Todd. Three years later, Thomas enrolled, excelled academically, and developed an interest in physics before graduating in 1960.

At Morgan State College, well-known physics chair Julius Henry Taylor taught her trigonometry in about 20 minutes. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) hired Thomas as a mathematician/ data analyst immediately after graduating in 1964. She retired in 1995, rising to associate chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office.

She developed computer data systems to support the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (1964-1970); became an international Landsat image processing data format expert (1970-1981); and GSFC team leader for the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment, which proved the feasibility of using Landsat data to predict global wheat yield. Dr. Thomas served as assistant program manager for Landsat/ Nimbus on detail at NASA Headquarters; and technical officer for a $42 million multi-year technical support contract. In 1985, she was the National Space Science Data Center computer facility manager and served as project manager for the Space Physics Analysis Network (1986-1990), which was NASA’s wide area network and a critical part of today’s Internet. Her networking expertise contributed to the research in the Halley’s comet, ozone hole studies, and a supernova.

In 1980, Dr. Thomas received the Illusion Transmitter patent that provides what is referred to as a holographic image, visible without needing special glasses. She obtained a master’s degree in Engineering Administration from George Washington University (1985). Under the guidance of Fred T. Hofstetter, Thomas earned a University of Delaware Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership/ Ed Tech (2004).

During 2021 Black History Month, hip-hop artist Chance The Rapper reintroduced Thomas to a younger generation when he tweeted to his 8.2 million followers her name, image, and scientific contributions. She has received NASA’s GSFC Award of Merit, authored numerous scientific technical reports, and was bestowed a Monmouth University honorary doctorate (1993).

Dr. Valerie L. Thomas has been an important scientific pioneer who has inspired many, particularly Black women, to enter STEM fields. Currently, she resides in Prince George’s County, Maryland where she is a substitute teacher and is active with STEM organizations such as Science, Mathematics, Aerospace, Research, and Technology, Inc., and SHADES OF BLUE.