Meet NASA’s Susan Finley, still exploring ‘the final frontier’ at 81

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Susan Finley is accustomed to pushing boundaries — “to boldly go where no one has gone before,” as the Star Trek TV show might say.

Photo of a young Susan G. Finley (NASA)
In 1958, Finley was hired by NASA for her mathematical skills. (NASA)

Finley, 81, is among the longest-serving women at NASA. Over the years, she has participated in missions to explore the moon, the sun, all the planets and other objects in the solar system.

She’s also seen lots of changes, mostly driven by advances in technology.

When Finley joined the U.S. space program in 1958, she began working as a human “computer,” solving complex mathematical equations and tracking rocket trajectories by hand. Eventually, electronic computers took over calculating rocket flight paths, so Finley switched to computer programming.

She became a subsystems engineer and began developing and testing software for NASA’s Deep Space Network. That network, as part of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, supports NASA’s interplanetary spacecraft missions and selected Earth-orbiting missions.

Ca. 1960 photo of a woman writing on a white board and a man sitting at a desk in an office (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
A human “computer” at NASA tracks the position of Mariner 2. The spacecraft became the first to fly by another planet when it reached Venus in 1962. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Leaving her mark

Finley has made lasting contributions to space exploration. One of the early computer programs she wrote to help navigate spacecraft is still being used at NASA, with some modifications.

When asked about the highlights of her career, two episodes top the list.

She took part in a three-country project in 1985, when NASA partnered with the Russian and French space agencies in a mission to study Venus.

After flying to Venus, the spacecraft was scheduled for a rendezvous with Halley’s comet. Finley’s team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory tracked the spacecraft and collected data for NASA.

“All communication needed to be through the French, but our tracking was so successful that Russia engaged us to do the subsequent trip to the comet,” said Finley. “I really enjoyed being part of an international project.”

Another highlight was working on the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

When the first of two rovers landed on Mars in January 2004, it absorbed several hard bounces on the Martian surface, and NASA engineers nervously waited to learn the rover’s fate.

“My most exciting moment was when I announced to the mission manager … that the rover had come to rest, ‘alive,’ after bouncing and being silent for 15 minutes,” said Finley. “It’s quite an experience to be the only person in the world with a bit of news like that.”

With her long history at NASA, Finley is often approached by younger colleagues for guidance. She also tries to encourage kids she meets at science-oriented summer programs, telling them: “Be unafraid of asking questions.”

Finley has no plans to retire. “I’m always learning something new,” she said. But “maybe someday I’ll have time to learn the piano.”