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Susan G. Finley

Longest-Serving Woman in NASA, Employee of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

Longest-Serving Woman in NASA, Employee of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

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California, USA
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Susan G. Finley Biography

Susan G. Finley has been an employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) since January of 1958, making her the longest-serving woman in NASA. Two days before Explorer 1 was launched, Finley began her career with the laboratory as a human computer, calculating rocket launch trajectories by hand. She now serves as a subsystem engineer for NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN). At JPL, she has participated in the exploration of the Moon, the Sun, all the planets and other bodies in the Solar System.

Finley attended Scripps College for three years with the original intention of becoming an architect. Her knowledge of engineering was vast because of her talents in mathematical and computing courses, so she attempted to learn art, but later realized that engineering was in her future. During her college experience, she majored in the humanities which allowed her to be successful as a subsystem engineer. A subsystem refers to a smaller system within a larger one, thus her position requires her to focus on more specific aspects of the technologies she works with at JPL. At the age of 21, she left Scripps College to become an engineer with a thermodynamics group at Convair in Pomona, California.

At the beginning of her career, Finley made sacrifices in her career for her family. She left JPL twice in the first few years of employment in order to support her husband’s education and also took maternity leave for some time for her two sons, returning permanently to JPL in 1969. According to Finley, balancing her work and family lives was difficult because of the “lack of good child care options,” although she believes that women still face these struggles today. One of her goals was to keep her work and home life separate, aiming to never bring her work home with her or “working late without making up that time at home.” She cooked all the meals for her family, but did not spend much time on housework. Her husband, on the other hand, worked on the cars and the yard as he was of the “generation that did not help with the house or children”.

In 1958, Susan Finley took a position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, as a computer. This job required her to perform “trajectory computations for rocket launches by hand”. In 1962, it was a calculation Finley made that showed that Ranger 3 had missed the Moon by 22,000 miles.

The advent of electronic computers slowly changed what the all-female computations group did. The women were trained to program in FORTRAN, the primary computer language developed for scientific applications. Male engineers largely didn't want to do the programming themselves in the 1960s. It was still considered "women's work," not part of an engineer's job description. Through her career, Finley provided both manual computation work and FORTRAN programs as part of JPL's missions to the Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, in the Ranger, Mariner, Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager programs.

In the 1980s, she switched to software testing and subsystem engineering for the NASA Deep Space Network (DSN). A systems engineer in the context of NASA “encourages the use of tools and methods to better comprehend and manage complexity in systems”. The DSN is used to track and communicate with every deep space probe sponsored by NASA as well as non-US space missions. The research group tracked the Russian spacecraft Vega which carried a French balloon to Venus on its journey to Halley’s comet. Although working with the Russians was difficult during this Cold War time period, her team was able to collaborate well with the French and they successfully delivered tracking data for the French balloon to route toward the comet. Finley considers this project the most memorable of her many years at NASA.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Finley contributed to JPL's further explorations of the solar system. Finley worked with the Mars Exploration Rover missions and developed technology in which musical tones were sent at differing phases of descent and were transmitted back to DSN. The engineers were then able to use this information to determine which landing stage the rocket was in at a given time. Finley was stationed at the Goldstone and Tidninbilla stations while the landings were taking place and was the first to hear the tones that confirmed the landers survived their trip to Mars. Unfortunately, her work went unrecognized in the media because they reported from JPL's mission control only.

She continues to work full time for JPL and is involved in DSN support for NASA's recent unmanned missions, including the recent Pluto flyby by the New Horizons spacecraft and the Juno mission to Jupiter.

2013-NASA Group Achievement Award, NASA (nine certificates awarded to Susan Finley). Over the course of her career, Finley won several NASA Group Achievement Awards. This certificate is "awarded to any combination of government and/or non-government individuals for an outstanding group accomplishment that has contributed substantially to NASA's mission". Her years of dedication and service to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have made her the longest-serving woman in the space agency.

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Susan G. Finley is a keynote speaker and industry expert who speaks on a wide range of topics . The estimated speaking fee range to book Susan G. Finley for your event is available upon request. Susan G. Finley generally travels from CA, USA and can be booked for (private) corporate events, personal appearances, keynote speeches, or other performances. Similar motivational celebrity speakers are Lauren Lyons, Mary Ellen Weber, Alyssa Carson, Carol Reiley and Cady Coleman. Contact All American Speakers for ratings, reviews, videos and information on scheduling Susan G. Finley for an upcoming live or virtual event.

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