Our latest installation into our Women in Science blog recently passed away at the age of 93 and was considered the Mother of the Hubble Telescope. Nancy Grace Roman worked for NASA for nearly two decades and was one of the first women executives there. She fought for her place in the male-dominated fields of science and technology in a time when women were discouraged from entering the sciences and helped pave the way for future women in science.
Roman was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1925 to a music teacher mother and a geophysicist father but soon moved to Oklahoma shortly after her birth. Their family moved quite a bit while she was growing up and she spent time in in Texas, New Jersey, Michigan, and Nevada. She showed an interest in astronomy at an early age and formed an astronomy club with some classmates at her school in Nevada. They would get together once a week and learn all about the constellations from various books. She knew by the time she was in high school that she wanted to pursue a career in astronomy although she was discouraged by many during her life. A guidance counsellor of hers once asked her why she wanted to take an additional algebra class when she could take Latin. She attended an accelerated program at Western High School in Baltimore and graduated in 3 years.
Roman received her bachelor of arts in astronomy from Swarthmore College in 1946 while working at the Sproul Observatory. She went on to get her PhD in the field from the University of Chicago three years later. She remained at the university for a further six years working at the Yerkes Observatory and would travel to the McDonald Observatory in Texas to work as a research assistant with William Wilson Morgan. She went on to become an instructor and later an assistant professor but as this position was not a permanent one, she decided to leave the world of academia because of the scarcity of tenured professor positions open to women. She remained involved in her alma maters throughout her life and even served on the Swarthmore board of observers from 1980 to 1988.
Roman joined NASA in 1959, a mere six months old after its inception. Her previous work in non-thermal radio source spectra, microwave spectroscopy (the study of matter using microwave spectroscopy), and geodetic work (the study of the Earth’s shape, orientation in space, and its magnetic fields) proved invaluable tools when she created the astronomy program at NASA. She was the first chief of astronomy in NASA’s Office of Space Science and was the first woman executive at the space agency. In this position she would travel the country and educate others while collecting data on what others were studying and telling them the advantages of observing from space. It was tough job promoting space based astronomy when most study at the time was done from terrestrial telescopes. She held other positions during her time at NASA including chief of astronomy and relativity. (I think this title kind of sounds like she was in charge of reality as we know it. Who knows, maybe she was…)
Roman was instrumental in helping the Hubble Space Telescope become a reality. In her role at NASA she developed and planned this instrument which went on to take some of the most stunning photographs of space. The Hubble Space Telescope was not the first of its kind but it was one of the largest and most versatile space research tools and a huge PR boon for astronomy. Most people have heard of it and everyone has seen the wondrous photos taken by it. It was this work for which she garnered the nickname, the Mother of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Roman retired from NASA after working there for 21 years in 1979. She continued working for contractors who supported the Goddard Space Flight Center until 1997. She had said that she thought one of her biggest achievements was when she discovered that not all stars that were common were the same age. She wrote a number of ground-breaking papers and was recognized with numerous awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award-Women in Aerospace in 2010, NASA Outstanding Scientific Leadership Award, and in 2017 Lego commemorated her in plastic with her likeness beside a little Lego Hubble Telescope. You know you’ve hit the “bigs” when you are celebrated in plastic. The world would be a different place had it not been for the study and work of Nancy Grace Roman.