Valerie Thomas may not be a household name, but she made significant contributions to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. On October 21, 1980, Thomas received a patent for an invention, the illusion transmitter, which is currently used by the space agency today. Details on Jones’ early life are scant, but what is known is that she is a Maryland native and born in 1943.
As a young girl, she was attracted to science and technology by way of a science book tailored for boys. Despite sharing an interest in technology with her father, Jones was not encouraged to pursue science.
After graduating from an all-girls high school, Thomas entered Baltimore’s Morgan State University. As one of just two women majoring in physics, she excelled and her tenacity landed her a job at NASA in 1964 as a data analyst. She rose within the government agency quickly, overseeing the Landsat project in the 1970s. The Landsat satellite was the first to transfer images black to Earth, and Jones oversaw the development of that portion of the project.
Thomas’ illusion transmitter is a device that creates optical illusions via two concave mirrors. Flat mirrors make images look as if they’re inside or behind the mirror while concave mirrors create images that appear to be tangible or in front of the mirror.
This technology was later adopted by NASA and is still used today. The invention also made its way in uses for surgery and the development of television and video screens. Thomas retired from NASA in 1995, rising to the positions of Project Manager of the Space Physics Analysis Network and Associate Chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office. Her work also included developing computer programs to research Halley’s Comet, the ozone layer and other fields.
Thomas is the recipient of the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. Thomas also served as a mentor for youth via the National Technical Association and Science Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology, Inc. After her retirement, Thomas also served as an associate at the UMBC Center for Multicore Hybrid Productivity Research.