JULY 4, 2016   At 79, she’s still on the job at NASA. As the solar-powered planetary explorer Juno nears Jupiter after a five-year journey, she’s at her post, monitoring radio signals at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, waiting for a particular beep — a beep that will signal that the spacecraft has reached Jupiter.

Kenneth Chang tells her fascinating story in The New York Times. Clearly, Susan Finley has intelligence, resilience, and pluck — qualities necessary to an ambitious woman who came of age in the early 1950s. She dropped out of college after three years (“I just hate school”), yet she rose from “human computer” to NASA engineer — in a field that was overwhelmingly male. Chang explains how she crunched numbers back in the late ’50s:

“Electronic computers were still rare and expensive, so engineers — invariably men back then — handed off the equations they needed to have solved to a computer, almost always a female employee,” Chang writes. “Ms. Finley computed, first at Convair, an aeronautics company in Pomona, Calif, then at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

Ms. Finley recalled: “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. 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.”

Finley took six years off to raise two sons, returning in 1969, having learned computer programming. She became an engineer. “Over the years, she also worked as a test engineer and then an engineer on the Deep Space Network” of radio telescopes, Chang writes.

In 2008, the laboratory reclassified its jobs, and Finley’s title was changed to “engineering specialist,” because she had no college degree. Though a laboratory spokeswoman told Chang that Finley “retains her same salary and status,” she has been reclassified as an hourly employee who has to sign in when she arrives and out when she leaves. Finley considers the change a demotion. But she soldiers on.

She has no plans to retire.

Read more at The New York Times

 

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