Skip to main content

Small satellite a big success for engineer Marjorie Townsend

Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics (APL) Project Manager Henry Riblet, left and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Project Manager Margie Townsend inspecting SAS-C prior to testing in 1974. (Photo: NASA/Marjorie Townsend)

Update May 8, 2015: AAAS member Marjorie Townsend passed away April 4, 2015 at a hospital in Washington, D.C. She was 85.

AAAS member Marjorie Townsend, who managed NASA's Small Astronomy Satellite (SAS) program of the 1970s, which mapped X-ray sources within and beyond our own galaxy, reflects back on her career.

Marjorie Townsend is a proud grandmother of 11 and great grandmother of three. At 80, Townsend is enjoying retirement in the same home her late husband and she bought in 1957. The traditional two-story sits on a quiet, dead-end street in the neighborhood of Cleveland Park in northwest Washington, DC. In her formal living room a mantel clock chimes the hours away — first at the quarter, then the half, then back at the quarter, and finally at the hour.

Townsend, a petite woman dressed in light blue, enters the room carrying a large box and takes a seat on the end of the couch. She opens the box, full of photographs. She flips the top one over. The photo is of a young woman wearing a bright grassy green dress. She has a big smile on her face which is round and fair. Her hair is light brown and cropped short. Her blue eyes gaze downward at a large piece of hardware made of plastic and metal. Wires wrap around almost every inch of the contraption.

"That's me," Townsend says, pointing at the woman. She moves her finger down to the hardware, "and that's SAS-C." The photo dates to 1974 when Townsend was project manager for NASA's Small Astronomy Satellite (SAS) program. SAS-C or SAS-3, was the third in a series of NASA spacecraft placed in orbit in the 1970s to observe celestial X-ray and gamma-ray sources both within and beyond our own galaxy. The satellites mapped the universe in X-ray wavelengths and discovered X-ray pulsars and evidence of black holes. For Townsend, the SAS program was the highlight of her career — the culmination of hard work, good judgment, and perseverance.

See photos of Townsend's years at NASA

Townsend is one of a small group of women who chose to work in a male-dominated profession long before there was a women's movement. She accomplished her goals, no fanfare or rallies of support, just hard-earned praise and respect from the few who were fortunate enough to work alongside her.

"When I was a young child, it wasn't even a consideration to go to engineering school for a female," says Townsend.

Marjorie Rhodes was born in 1930 and grew up in Washington, DC, an only child. A bright student, the young Miss Rhodes excelled in math and science. She was so talented, in fact, that she skipped several grades and graduated from high school at the age of 15.

Townsend enrolled at George Washington University (GWU) in the fall of 1945 to study electrical engineering. Why engineering? "No history," she says. Her high school history teacher turned her off to the subject. In engineering school, Townsend found exactly what she wanted. "Science, math, and no history," she says with a wide smile.

The young girl attended classes with all men. WWII had just ended and GWU was flooded with GI's. But it didn't intimidate her in the slightest. "They were serious students," says Townsend. "These GIs didn't have time to worry about one lone female in their classes. And it was not as though I was a threat."

In her third year, a fellow engineering student introduced her to a young man majoring in pre-med. His name was Charles Townsend, better known to everyone as Chuck. The two were married in June of 1948. Townsend had no intention of quitting school and becoming a housewife. In fact, she got herself a day job at the National Bureau of Standards in their radon testing laboratory to help her husband pay for medical school. At night she continued her education. It took a little longer this way but she finished and received her degree in 1951, becoming GWU's first female engineering graduate.

Since her husband's medical training didn't cover all their expenses, Townsend decided to find a job post-graduation. "We had to eat," she says. She got a job interview with the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). It was an interesting experience, Townsend recalls. "I found out I was female," she says with a laugh, noting that she would not have been considered for the job had she not been married. The hiring manager frowned on single women looking for husbands in the workplace. Being married, the manger considered her "safe" and she was hired.

Townsend was assigned to work on anti-submarine warfare. She developed sonar signal-processing devices and evaluated sonar techniques and display methods. "We wanted to pull submarines out of the background" to distinguish them from whales or fishing nets," Townsend explains. Her team was ultimately successful. They designed a new submarine detection classification technique which became standard equipment in the fleet.

Those early years flew by. Her husband finished residency and she started having children — four total. How did she juggle a career and a household? With some outside help, of course. "Hattie came and fixed breakfast, lunch, and dinner and then went home," says Townsend. She was with the family for 32 years. "Hattie brought stability into a life which around me could never have been as stable," she says.

After eight years at the NRL, advancement opportunities were running out so Townsend started to look for a career move. She didn't have to look far. In 1959 NASA was temporarily housing its weather satellite group at the NRL. Known as TIROS, Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite, it was NASA's first experimental program to see if satellites could be useful in the study of the Earth. The TIROS group from Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey, was playing around with an endless tape recorder. Their plan was to put the tape recorder on a rocket and blast it into space and collect weather data with it. The meteorological spacecraft was to test experimental television techniques and infrared equipment. They needed someone who could help develop the ground equipment for the infrared experiment. Townsend took the job.

Dubbed TIROS II, the satellite launched on November 23, 1960, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a Delta rocket.

It was equipped with two independent television camera subsystems for taking cloud cover pictures, plus a five-channel medium-resolution scanning radiometer and a two-channel non-scanning low-resolution radiometer for measuring radiation from the Earth and its atmosphere. The spacecraft performed normally from launch until January 22, 1961.

The work was challenging and so was the environment.

At NASA her presence ruffled many feathers. One engineer on the team went around calling her "stupid." Apparently, he wanted her job and didn't get it, she ventures.

Many of the male engineers didn't feel the workplace was for women. They resented her being there. There were only a "handful" of women engineers at NASA during this time, Townsend says. She got the feeling there were some people in management trying to make these women fail, to show that women can't do this kind of work.

One manager she worked with tried to undermine her work, she says. He'd given her a specification for noise that was the theoretical limit, "impossible to meet," she says. Townsend had learned a lot of about signals and noise at the NRL working with sonar. "I was very knowledgeable in this subject going into the project and able to do the calculations that were necessary to see what he had done to me or was trying to do to me," she says.

But Townsend handled the stress, stuck with the weather group, and the satellites kept going up.  Slowly she won over most of her skeptics and received promotions and increased responsibility. At one point, she supervised a team of 22 engineers and 10 technicians. Townsend recalls that her boss and mentor at the time tried out two men "who failed miserably" before coming to her "out of sheer desperation." She was a section head, "but they wouldn't call it that," Townsend explains.  "I had the same responsibilities as all the other section heads, but they wouldn't give me the title."

Then in 1966, came along a project manager opening. Nobody wanted it, she says. It was a solo spacecraft project with a Principle Investigator (PI) who had a reputation for being difficult to work with. SAS, short for Small Astronomy Satellite, was a mission to detect cosmic X-ray sources. Townsend, not one to shy away from a challenge, accepted the position. Townsend and the PI, Riccarado Giacconi, the Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist, got along just fine. "We had the same goals," she says.

On December 12, 1970, SAS-1 was launched by the Italians on a launch platform off the coast of Kenya on the nation's Independence Day. Townsend was in Africa for the launch. The satellite was renamed Uhuru, which means freedom in Swahili.

In orbit, Uhuru spun slowly, usually making one revolution every 12 minutes, but with the use of a magnetic torquing system (which reacted against the earth's magnetic field), it slowed to a spin of less than one revolution per hour. In its two-year life span, Uhuru catalogued over 150 X-ray sources. It also discovered that neutron stars paired with binary systems with normal stars are highly luminous X-ray emitters.

"It was a really important moment in the history of astronomy," says Harvard Professor of Practical Astronomy Josh Grindlay. The satellite quadrupled the number of X-ray sources known at the time. "It began the field that I work in of high energy astrophysics which looks at the universe in the light of X-rays," he says.

For her contributions to U.S.-Italian space efforts, the Italian government made Townsend Knight of the Italian Republic Order.  NASA extended the program, launching two more satellites — SAS-2 (B) in 1972, which detected gamma ray sources, and SAS-3 (C) in 1975, which discovered a dozen X-ray burst sources.

Townsend retired from NASA in 1980 and spent another decade consulting. She retired completely in 1993. She now spends her days visiting grandchildren.

Looking at the photo of the woman in the green dress, Townsend says, "I really had it all."

Her advice for women engineers out there today is simple. Think like your boss. "If you don't, he'll never be a mentor for you and guide you into his job if he moves."

Townsend discusses her mentor at NASA and what happened to her when he went on sabbatical for a year

In the corner of her living room a china cabinet holds plaques, statues and awards from her career. Among them is a miniature replica of SAS-1.  Townsend places SAS-1 in her hand. The satellite, a golden square detector with four solar panel arms extending outward, rests on a wooden base.

It serves as an example to young women that a career in engineering can lead to great things.

Representative Image Caption
Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics (APL) Project Manager Henry Riblet, left and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Project Manager Margie Townsend inspecting SAS-C prior to testing in 1974. (Photo: NASA/Marjorie Townsend)
Blog Name