When she was a little girl, Nancy Grace Roman would take nighttime walks with her mother, who pointed out the constellations and aurora that sparkled against the dark sky. Years later, Roman would play a vital role in opening distant celestial bodies to unprecedented scientific study, as one of the galvanizing forces behind the Hubble Space Telescope. She was, in fact, known as the “mother of the Hubble.”
Roman, who served as NASA’s first chief of astronomy and its first female executive, died on December 26, reports Richard Goldstein of the New York Times. She was 93 years old.
Born in Nashville in 1925, Roman credited her parents with inspiring her long-standing interest in astronomy. Her mother, Georgia Smith Roman, was a music teacher, taught her to love birds, plants and the stars and planets that swirl above the Earth. Her father, Irwin Roman, was a geophysicist. He “answered my scientific questions,” Roman once told NASA.
As an 11-year-old, Roman organized an astronomy club for her friends, holding weekly meetings to earn about the constellations. But she her passion for scientific subjects was often met with resistance, if not outward contempt.
“I still remember asking my high school guidance teacher for permission to take a second year of algebra instead of a fifth year of Latin,” she later told Voice of America, according to Goldstein. “She looked down her nose at me and sneered, ‘What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?’ That was the sort of reception that I got most of the way.”
Undeterred, Roman obtained a degree in astronomy from Swathmore College in Pennsylvania in 1946, and then a doctorate in the same subject from the University of Chicago. In 1959, after working at the United States Research Laboratory, Roman was recruited to the newly founded National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
It was, as National Air and Space Museum curator Margaret Weitekamp notes, “a time before the second wave of the Women’s Movement in the United States began, when banks often refused women credit in their own names and there was still an active medical debate about whether women could ever physically endure spaceflight someday.”
But at NASA, Roman was given an opportunity to shine. She was responsible for “planning a program of satellites and rockets with the advice of a wide sample of the nation's astronomical community,” Roman explained in her interview with the agency. She also administered a grant program to support the astronomy program.
As early as 1962, Roman began mulling over the possibility of sending astronomical instruments into space. From the days of Galileo, telescopes on the ground had been helping humans learn about the solar system, but the resulting images were blurred by the Earth’s atmosphere. Space-based equipment, thought Roman and others like her, might offer unprecedented clarity. The genesis of the Hubble Telescope can in fact be traced back to 1946, when astronomer Lyman Spitzer published a paper titled “Astronomical advantages of an extraterrestrial observatory.”
But due to concerns over the costs of such an instrument, in addition to doubts that it could even be executed, the push to get a telescope into space did not take off for decades. Roman retired from NASA in 1979, but she came back on as a consultant to work on the Hubble. She co-ordinated astronomers and engineers who were working on the project, pitched the telescope to the Bureau of the Budget, and wrote testimony for NASA experts who advocated for the Hubble before Congress.
The telescope was launched into space in 1990, and has since allowed scientists to observe the most distant galaxies and stars. Thanks to the Hubble, “our view of the universe and our place within it has never been the same,” NASA says.
Roman’s role as an advocate was not limited to the Hubble, reports Erin Blakemore for National Geographic. She sought to inspire young people, and particularly girls, to pursue careers in the scientific fields. After retiring, she taught astronomy to fifth graders in Washington. When Lego released its “Women of NASA” set, Roman was among four trailblazing scientists depicted in figurine form; her diorama included a little model of the Hubble.
When asked what advice she would give to students interested in science careers, she said: “If you enjoy puzzles, science or engineering may be the field for you, because scientific research and engineering is a continuous series of solving puzzles.”
“Science, like all jobs, has its share of drudgery and boredom,” she added, “but basically it is fun.”