Virginia T. Norwood: The Mother of Landsat

Virginia Norwood, 1963
Virginia Norwood, the mother of Landsat, in 1963 with slide rule. Norwood’s father gave her her first slide rule at age 9, by the late 1960s she was designing the groundbreaking Multispectral Scanner System (MSS) for the first Landsat satellite. Photo credit: Hughes; used with permission of Virginia Norwood

August 07, 2020 • Take out a yardstick. Flip it over to the metric side and measure out 89 centimeters long, 59 centimeters wide and 40 centimeters tall. Imagine an object that size weighing about 105 pounds (48 kg). This should give you a feel for the size of the Multispectral Scanner System that flew on the first Landsat satellite. That’s the compact size of the instrument that initiated repetitive observation of Earth’s landmasses from space—the instrument that has defined much of modern remote sensing.

Now, let’s meet the woman who created it.

At 93, Virginia T. Norwood is an avid birdwatcher, making daily counts of bird species outside of her Topanga Canyon home in Los Angeles. Her six-speed Mazda two-seater is parked nearby; she’s eager to take it out for a drive through the oak-laden hills. She plans to renew her driver’s license—as required every two years at her age—once the Covid-19 pandemic ebbs.

Virginia Norwood has never been one to let challenges stand in her way.


Photons in the Field

The space boom of the 1960s got many companies thinking about aerospace design. At the time, Norwood was part of an advanced design group working for Hughes Aircraft Company in its Space and Communications Division in El Segundo, California. A decade earlier, she had been the first woman to become a member of the company’s technical staff.

The technical staff in her division was given wide latitude to find interesting projects and problems in need of a solution. So, part of Norwood’s job was to know what novel projects NASA was considering. She knew that thanks to the prompting of the Department of the Interior, NASA was interested in acquiring multispectral images of Earth from space for resource management.

It was a problem she was interested in, so she set out to solve it.

After procuring research and development funds, Norwood went about determining exactly what it was that users wanted. Which “colors” or portions of the electromagnetic spectrum did they want to see from space? Did they want to see red, green, and blue portions of the spectrum like human eyes? Did they want infrared or thermal information beyond the scope of human vision?

She embarked on a user-based design study that captured input from the who’s who of resource managers of the era: Ralph Shay from Purdue University; Arch Park from the Department of Agriculture; meteorologist and pollution expert Morris Tepper; and geologist Bill Fischer, hydrologist David Phoenix, and cartographer Alden Colvocoresses, all from the US Geological Survey (USGS).

She spent time in the field with agronomists as they measured light reflectance, counting photons with field spectrometers to assess plant health and uncover the spectral “signatures” of different crop types. She combed the data from laboratories like those at Purdue University and the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan that were flying multispectral imagers on planes.

“I had to talk to people in all kinds of disciplines that I had no idea about before, so I found it utterly fascinating,” she remembers.

She analyzed their input and put together specifications for what spectral bands a space-based instrument should include, what its revisit time should be, and what users needed in terms of geographic pixel location knowledge, spatial resolution, and spectral measurement accuracy.

“I tried to get an intersection of their needs and make the optimal specifications for the scanner itself which would satisfy the broadest range of them,” Norwood explains.


Gathering Earthly Photons from Space

Norwood was convinced that a multispectral scanner offered the most feasible way to meet the instrument specifications that her study had yielded.

Virginia Norwood

Virginia Norwood at the Storm Detector Radar Set at the Army Signal Corps Laboratories in New Jersey. Photo credit: displayed at the Institute for Radio Engineers Convention, Spring 1950; used with permission of Virginia Norwood

NASA scientists and engineers were interested in scanner technology, but skeptical. They had settled on a television-like camera system, known as a Return Beam Vidicon (RBV), as the primary instrument for the first Landsat satellite (known as the Earth Resources Technology Satellite then). This system, built by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), used traditional camera lenses, shutters, and cathode ray tubes to image a full frame, or scene, at once. Vidicon technology had been proven on the TIROS weather satellites and the Surveyor moon missions. The RBV’s similarity to traditional cameras made it a preferred system for USGS scientists and cartographers as well.

Some forward-thinking engineers at NASA, who were aware of the success of airborne multispectral imagers from midwestern laboratories and familiar with the RBV’s limitations, were willing to take a chance on an experimental scanner payload. So, Norwood and her team at Hughes were awarded a contract to design and build a spaceborne scanner.

Translating an airborne imaging concept to a functional spaceborne scanning system was a monumental task. “This was space—no air, no gravity, significant distances for data signals to travel—it was all new,” Norwood explains.

Norwood’s training, work experience, and position at Hughes made her uniquely qualified to craft the spaceborne scanner.

Norwood was a physicist. In June 1947 she had graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in mathematical physics and had taken all graduate courses her last three semesters. Her astute understanding of physics enabled her to find completely new ways to solve problems, as her three US patents attest—the first one for a radar reflector she invented at 22.

She had a solid understanding of the physics of light and myriad trade-offs that a space-based remote sensing instrument must make in terms of spatial, spectral, and radiometric resolutions.

With knowledge garnered from her user interviews, the specifics of the spacecraft’s orbit, and the weight and size allowances for a scanner, she worked the trade-off calculations to figure out what was possible and what could be flight-ready in three years.

“It was heavily dictated by the reflected photons available,” Norwood relates.

On a spacecraft with a total mass of nearly 4000 pounds (1800 kg), the scanner’s mass allocation was meager—just over 100 pounds. The majority of the spacecraft payload space and mass were designated for the primary RBV instrument. Even the data recording system (two gargantuan wideband video tape recorders, weighing in at a combined 152 pounds) had more mass allowance than the scanner.

“We shared space and mass allowance on the satellite with the RCA vidicons and the time we had to get our scanner designed, built, and tested was short. So, the MSS version that first flew was reduced and redesigned to only have four bands,” Norwood recounts.

(A version of the bigger seven spectral-band scanner that Norwood had originally designed would launch a decade later on Landsat 4.)

“It was a matter of putting the biggest telescope you could have, which was 9 inches, and then getting the best spatial resolution within the constraints of the accuracy required, and everyone seemed to want one to three percent accuracy at the lowest light level—which is how I have to think about it when designing the sensor.”


Building the Multispectral Scanner System

Scanners work much differently than cameras. The MSS used a mechanically rocking mirror to scan side-to-side, building up an image line-by-line as the satellite travels forward. The MSS mirror scanned six lines at a time to keep up with the satellite’s orbital speed. Light directed by the scan mirror was sent to a four by six array of optical fibers located at the focal plane; the fibers directed the energy through spectral filters and into light sensitive detectors. In this way, four images, one for each spectral band range, were simultaneously built-up six lines at a time. The energy from photons striking the detectors were sent to a multiplexer that translated them into digital signals, combining the digital data from the 24 detectors into a single bit stream that was relayed to the ground where it was unscrambled back into four images (one for each spectral band).

“It was pretty exotic data handling for 1969,” Ralph Wengler, an early MSS project manager at Hughes shared in a 2005 interview.

To build the scanner she had designed, Norwood capitalized on the engineering expertise at Hughes.

“It was as if I were acquiring pieces of the scanner from various suppliers who all happened to be in different parts of Hughes,” she says. “I recall that my management thought that I was nuts to be going hither and yon for help with pieces of the project; they anticipated difficulties with that approach. But I wanted to get the best expertise available and that ended up working well.”

Hughes had a track-record of building scanners; they had built spin scanners and refined fiber optic technology for the Advanced Technology Satellites (a concept of Verner Suomi’s realized by Hughes engineers). But the ATS weather satellites had a ground resolution of 4000 m and the MSS required precision geolocation at a resolution nearly two orders of magnitude better (79 m). A sizable challenge.

So early on she teamed up with Jack Lansing, a Hughes engineer who had lots of detector experience. Together they refined the MSS design to ensure the best spectral and spatial response possible.

“Jack tucked the different sensors into surprising places so that we could provide the wide spectral response. He was also important in the calibration methods that were critical,” she describes.

MSS diagram

Diagram of the four-band MSS, the photomultiplier tubes and silicon photodiodes are tucked in the rear of the sensor. Image credit: Hughes/NASA

Norwood and Lansing settled on two types of detectors, or sensors. They used silicon photodiodes for the near-infrared band and photomultiplier tubes (PMT) for the green, red, and red “edge” (closer to near-infrared) bands. They would have liked to use all silicon photodiode detectors since the PMTs were heavy, required high voltage, and needed a fair amount of power, but photodiodes couldn’t yet sense visible wavelengths well.

The design of the scan mirror used to direct light from the ground to the detectors was state-of-the-art technology. Norwood had initially envisioned a sinusoidal motion for the mirror, but the finer spatial resolution and spectral accuracy requirements for the MSS made the uneven dwell time of that approach unworkable.

Again Norwood, knew where to go.

“I challenged our ‘house inventor’ Web Howe to devise a high precision liner scan mechanism,” she says. What he came up with was a “true space mechanism” that drifted by inertia on flex pivots until it banged into bumpers on either side of the scan. It depended on a force-free, low pressure environment so it couldn’t be fully tested in the space testing chamber known as “thermal vac.”

The large beryllium scan mirror was 9 inches by 13 inches and operated at 13.62 Hz, banging back and forth more than 13 times a second. To make such a large mirror light enough to keep within the scanner’s mass allocation, its supporting substrate was hollowed out like an eggcrate.

Later described as “groundbreaking,” the scan mirror met with great consternation at NASA and USGS.

“Just trying to explain how the banging inertial device worked to a vidicon-conditioned generation of electrical engineers was an uphill task,” Norwood wrote in 1991. “We now had derision that had not been heard since the ‘get a horse’ advice in the early days of the automobile.”

Every NASA engineer and USGS scientist that did a site visit to Hughes commented on the noise of the banging mirror, one likening it to a hammer mill.

Norwood assured them that no one could hear it in the vacuum of space.

Norwood’s decision to send the MSS data down digitally was also heavily questioned.

“At that time the very idea of digital encoding met with resistance at NASA,” Norwood recalls.

Norwood decided to quantize the MSS data into 6-bits. Both image data and calibration data (from the onboard internal lamp calibrator) were sent to the ground digitally. Even though the digital MSS data had a small dynamic range (able to show only 64 different radiance values), it could be calibrated, so images could be confidently compared from date-to-date and place-to-place.

The MSS radiometrically-corrected digital data pioneered quantitative satellite remote sensing, taking the science of Earth observation digital, where it has stayed ever since. And calibration methods developed for the MSS have been used as a model for other programs.

But the pre-launch testing for the MSS was more complex than any Norwood had encountered on previous projects.

“Probably the most trying aspect was that of devising tests for verifying radiometric and geometric accuracy at a level that was beyond existing test equipment,” Norwood recalls.

At a time when there were few working moms, Norwood, who had three children, was quite an exception. With instrument testing beyond the scope of computer microprocessors of the time, Norwood and Lansing would have to be at the testing facility all day and night during the expensive MSS thermal vac testing doing performance assessments with calculators, Norwood with her Hewlett Packard 35 calculator, Lansing with his Texas Instrument calculator.

Demonstrating stable MSS performance on the ground proved challenging.

To calm leery customers at NASA and USGS, Norwood sent Lansing and a crew of technicians out into the field with the engineering model of the MSS, known as the bread board, “to take pretty pictures we could show.”

They mounted the bread board (which looked like “a bunch of boxes”) on a turntable in the back of a truck to simulate the satellite’s progression in orbit and took it all around California scanning vertically to image Lake Tahoe, Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Glacier Point and San Francisco’s skyline.

“It did confirm that the detectors, the mirror, the data digitizing, and the radiation calibration were all working as designed,” Norwood comments.

The panorama taken of Half Dome hangs on a wall of Norwood’s home to this day.

MSS roadtrip

In May 1972, two months before the Landsat 1 launch, Hughes engineers took the MSS engineering model on an eight-day road trip to image locations around California. Top left: the MSS “bread board” on the back of a truck; bottom left: Yosemite Valley as imaged with the fourth MSS band (NIR); right: Half Dome imaged by the MSS. Image credit: Hughes/NASA


Landsat 1 Launches

Virginia Norwood, 1979

On July 23, 1972, Landsat 1 launched with the RBV and MSS aboard. When the first images came down to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center two days later, scientists, engineers, and technicians were amazed by the MSS image quality.

Virginia Norwood (right) with William Pecora’s wife Ethelwyn in 1979, the year Norwood won the Pecora Award for her outstanding contribution towards the better understanding of Earth via remote sensing. Photo credit: used with the permission of Virginia Norwood

The RBV had been the primary instrument, “But once we looked at the data, the roles switched,” NASA Landsat 1 Project Scientist Stan Freden related in a 2006 interview.

“As we had predicted, when the sensor was launched into the more benign environment of space it evidenced more stable performance both geometrically and radiometrically than we were able to demonstrate on the ground,” Norwood says.

“I never had doubts about the MSS, because I designed it and knew it would work.”

Given the quality of the MSS data, the decision was made not to risk turning the RBV instrument back on after it experienced a near mission-ending electrical anomaly two weeks later.

And so it was that the MSS started the moderate-resolution, visible/near-infrared digital data record of Earth from space that the world has grown accustomed to (along with its refined incarnations).

After a decade of working on Landsat instrumentation, Norwood moved on to other novel projects, but she considers Landsat one of the most satisfying because of its positive societal impacts.

The Landsat Program has been the foremost collaboration of NASA and USGS, and there have been many giants from government, academia, and industry behind its success. For the vision and the political will to implement the Landsat Program, William T. Pecora, former head of the USGS, is accordingly thought of as “The Father of Landsat.”

From a technological standpoint, when you think of the design and engineering that made the Landsat program a success and set the path for modern Earth observation, there is Virginia Norwood.

Is she comfortable with the “Mother of Landsat” moniker?

“Yes. I like it, and it’s apt. I created it; I birthed it; and I fought for it.”

Article by Laura E.P. Rocchio



We are indebted to Naomi Norwood for spending a full day this July conducting our interview with her mother and providing background details and documents; thanks to the authoring team of the Landsat’s Enduring Legacy book for much of the supporting research including two oral history sessions with Virginia, and to Dr. Darrel Williams for reconnecting our history team with Virginia in 2008.



Baumgardner, Marion, Sam Goward, Chris Johannsen, David Landgrebe, and Virginia Norwood. 2009. Landsat Legacy Oral History. West Lafayette, Indiana. Oral History Interview.

Bos, Carrie. 1981. “Norwood: woman of achievement.” Daily News, March 18, 1981.

Goward, Samuel N., Darrel L. Williams, Terry Arvidson, Laura E.P. Rocchio, James R. Irons, Carol A. Russell, and Shaida S. Johnston. 2017. Landsat’s Enduring Legacy: Pioneering Global Land Observations from Space. Bethesda, MD: American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing.

DeNoyer, John, Len Jaffe, and Bob Porter. 2006. Landsat Legacy Oral History. Greenbelt, MD.

DeNoyer, John, and Virginia Norwood. 2008. Landsat Legacy Oral History. Denver, CO.

Lansing, Jack, and Richard Cline. 1975. “The Four- and Five-Band Multispectral Scanners for Landsat.” Optical Engineering 14 (4):144312.

Markham, B. L., Arvidson, T., Barsi, J. A., Choate, M., Kaita, E., Levy, R., Lubke, M., & Masek, J. G. (2018) Landsat Program. In S. Liang (Ed.), Comprehensive Remote Sensing, vol. 1, pp. 27–90. Oxford: Elsevier.

“NASA – NSSDC – Experiment – Details – Multicolor Spin-Scan Cloudcover Camera (MSSCC)”. NASA. Accessed August 1, 2020.

Norwood, Virginia T. 1974. Multispectral Scanner (MSS) Improved Resolution Study Final Report. Hughes Aircraft Company.

Norwood, Virginia T. 1991. Notes: Early History of the MSS and TM Development.

Phillips, Fletcher, Jack Engel, Ralph Wengler, and Jim Young. 2006. Landsat Legacy Oral History. Santa Barbara, CA.