Meet Valerie Thomas, The NASA Scientist Who Made 3-D Movies Possible


September 30, 2022

Her passion led to a monumental technological invention!

Meet Valerie Thomas, the NASA scientist who made 3-D movies possible, The Black Wall Street Times reports.


Valerie Lavern Thomas is a native of Baltimore, Maryland who discovered her passion for technology early. As a young girl, she was fascinated by the mechanical parts she saw inside the television as her father worked on it. At the age of 8, she read The Boy’s First Book on Electronics. Raised in the all-Black Cherry Hill neighborhood, Thomas’ parents focused on creating “an inquiry-based hands-on learning environment” in their home, although Thomas’ father didn’t help her create any of the projects she saw in the book. Thomas went on to graduate from the all-girls public Western High School, taking a liking to physics. At the time, scientific careers weren’t considered suitable for women so no one encouraged her to pursue the subject; however, Thomas began taking advanced math classes at the newly integrated school anyway. She would then attend Morgan State University as one of just two women in her entire class to major in physics.

Thomas landed a job as a mathematical/data analyst for NASA. There, she focused on developing data systems to support satellite operations control centers. She oversaw the creation of the Landsat program, the “longest running enterprise for the acquisition of satellite imagery of Earth,” and spearheaded a team of 50 for the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment (LACIE), which focused on measuring the viability of space technology to automate the process of predicting wheat crops yield around the world, Upworthy reports.

In 1976, she attended a scientific seminar where she ran across an exhibit that piqued her interest. Using a light bulb and concave mirrors, the exhibit created an illusionary effect that made viewers believe the light bulb was still glowing even after it was unscrewed from the socket. This chance encounter prompted Thomas to begin playing around with flat and concave mirrors. 


She soon discovered that while flat mirrors would create a reflection making an object appear behind the glass, concave mirrors would make the reflection look as if it was in front of the glass, producing a three-dimensional illusion. On October 21, 1980, Thomas obtained the patent for the illusion transmitter which would become the basis for 3D technology. Today the technology is heavily used by the film industry for 3-D movies and the device is still utilized by NASA. 

In 1993, she was awarded an honorary doctorate for her work by Monmouth University. In 1995, Thomas retired from her position as associate chief of NASA’s Space Science Data Operations Office. She has received numerous accolades for her invention, including NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and NASA’s Equal Opportunity Medal. She went on to earn her master’s degree in Engineering Administration from George Washington University and a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership/Ed Tech from the University of Delaware. Dr. Thomas’ scientific discoveries have continued to inspire many and she serves as a role model for other Black women looking to pursue careers in STEM. 


NASA has long been a supporter of Black women in STEM, hiring Black women mathematicians when it wasn’t so common. Recently they named facilities in honor of mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, the first Black woman engineer at the agency. Both women were profiled in the film “Hidden Figures,” highlighting their accomplishments. 

Johnson was first honored with a NASA building back in September of 2017 when the Langley Research Center opened the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia. The pioneering mathematician spent her 33-year career at NASA working on groundbreaking missions, including calculating historic flight trajectories for the first American to go into space, for the first American to orbit earth, as well as the flight path for the first human trip to the moon. 

Jackson was a graduate of Hampton University, receiving her degree in mathematics and physical science. Prior to NASA, she worked at the National Advisory for Aeronautics. She joined NASA’s Langley Research Institute and was dubbed the “human computer,” working in the segregated West Area Computing Unit. Her excellent work landed her on a mission working with the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a wind tunnel with 60,000 horsepower capable of reaching speeds twice the speed of sound. She would eventually join a training program at the suggestion of a supervisor, earning her credentials to take it from mathematician to engineer. In 1958, she became NASA’s first Black woman engineer. At Langley’s Federal Women’s Program, Jackson advocated for the hiring and promotion of women as mathematicians, engineers and scientists. Later in life, she worked with local programs to get youth interested in STEM.


“We have to do something like this to get them interested in science. Sometimes they are not aware of the number of Black scientists, and don’t even know of the career opportunities until it is too late,” Jackson previously told reporters.

She passed away in 2005 at the age of 85, posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2019 along with her fellow engineers and mathematicians, Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Christine Darden. NASA renamed their Washington, DC headquarters in honor of Jackson in 2021. 

“Her perseverance, her empathy, her desire to lift us all—she inspired others to excel and to break through barriers. That is the spirit of NASA. Mary Jackson chose to lead by example, and at NASA today, we strive to emulate her vision, passion, and commitment,” said NASA’s Langley Director, Clayton Turner during the naming ceremony.


That same year, musician Chance The Rapper tweeted about Dr. Thomas’ groundbreaking accomplishments and her pioneering work in the STEM field to his 8.2 million followers, Blackpast reports. Adding Thomas’ name to the bunch and ensuring her impact was known, Thomas’ work was thrust into the forefront for an entirely new generation and since then she has been regularly lauded for her accomplishments. 




Nowadays Thomas remains active with various STEM organizations, telling her story and encouraging other young people to get into STEM fields. She is regularly engaged with organizations like the Science, Mathematics, Aerospace, Research, and Technology, Inc. and SHADES OF BLUE.

Thank you for your contributions Dr. Thomas! Because of you, we can!

Meet Valerie Thomas, the NASA scientist who made 3-D movies possible. Photo Courtesy of Oprahdaily.com


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