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Sue Finley is the longest serving woman at NASA and she has no plans to stop

No matter how complex or convoluted a formula may be, math problems always have answers. That’s what’s kept Sue Finley engaged through six decades of space exploration.

This month Finley completes her 60th year at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, making her the longest serving woman at NASA. She started two days before Explorer 1 launched in 1958.

Finley sat down with KPCC to share how she got started at JPL and what some of her favorite missions were during her tenure.

Her first job title was “computer.” She, like many women at the time, was paired with a male engineer to compute formulas that he came up with. Using a Friden calculator, she’d crunch numbers on interplanetary problems.

Friden Calculator
Marcin Wichary/Flickr
Friden Calculator

“They didn’t train me or anything. They just gave me a piece of paper with some equations on it and said, ‘Here, figure out how to get some answers,’” Finley said.

Did she like her new job? Absolutely.

"I loved it," she said. "As I say: you get answers. There’s a lot of things in this world that don’t have answers. All the problems we have don’t really have answers."

One of Finley’s specialties is working with tones to communicate with space craft.

A direct signal from a craft isn’t always an option. Antennas might be too weak or pointing in the wrong direction while it’s rocketing through space. Therefore, tones are the way to go.

Rovers and such are programmed to emit different inaudible frequencies that Finley tracks to monitor the progress of a craft. Using special instruments, she captures the tones and follows along in the program script.

“We know from [a] table what the frequency means. It’s translated into words,” she said. “Because we have a script, we know ‘Oh, that was supposed to happen then.’”

“So far nothing’s gone wrong when they’ve had tones,” she added. “When they haven’t had tones they’ve had to spend months trying to figure out what went wrong.”

Tones are only a small part of a space mission, she pointed out, and one of the many things she’s a part of at work.

Sue Finley (L) speaks to Nick Roman about her career at JPL.
Bianca Ramirez/KPCC
Sue Finley (L) speaks to Nick Roman about her career at JPL.

We asked her what she thought of Hollywood portrayals of space and the unknown. She said she didn’t care for it.

“It seems like most science fiction is about evil. And I don’t like evil. Space isn’t about evil,” she said.

She prefers the curious and often absurd books by the late Douglas Adams. Those are about people, not evil.

Finley has participated in summer programs for kids interested in space.

She tells them:

  • Never be afraid to ask questions.
  • Never expect to know everything.
  • Always be honest about what you don’t know.

What’s next for Finley?
“Keep working. There’s nothing I want to do at home. I hate housework.”