Given her background, Nancy Grace Roman’s life could have gone a couple of ways. She was born on 16 May 1925 in Nashville, Tennessee, hailed as a home of American roots music, and her mother, Georgia, was a music teacher.
But her father, Irwin, was a mathematician and geophysicist, and by age 11 she had started an astronomy club at school and her life’s path was set.
His work took the family from Tennessee to Texas, New Jersey, Nevada and Baltimore, Maryland, but by the time she was ready for university, she chose Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, because it had a good astronomy department, was close to Baltimore, and was co-educational.
Despite this, as she told University of Chicago’s UChicago Magazine in 2017, the college’s dean of women during her undergraduate years “encouraged women to pursue what she deemed female-appropriate fields. If you insisted on majoring in science or engineering, she wouldn’t have anything more to do with you”.
Similarly, as recent profile in Forbes magazine states, in 1942 the head of the physics department at Swarthmore told her that “he usually discouraged women from majoring in physics, although he admitted that she might make it”.
Eighteen years later, she became the first chief of astronomy at NASA: “not the first female chief of astronomy”, Forbes emphasises, “but the first one, period”.
Roman entered the University of Chicago in 1946 to do her doctoral studies, working in the Yerkes Observatory in Michigan.
UChicago Magazine says her thesis project focused on the Ursa Major cluster – the central part of the Big Dipper, the great bear. It involved looking for stars that were born with the stars in the Big Dipper, using information in existing catalogues. She found more than 200.
After earning her doctorate, Roman remained at the university as a post-doctoral associate, instructor, and then assistant professor – the first woman on the school’s astronomy faculty. She taught while conducting research and published several papers.
A NASA biography of Roman says that during this time she “made discoveries about the compositions of stars that had implications for the evolution of our Milky Way galaxy”.
In 1955, recognising that as a woman her opportunities for career advancement in academia were limited, she went to work at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, changing her focus from optical to the relatively new field of radio astronomy.
She arrived at NASA in 1959, six months after the agency had been established, as the chief of astronomy and relativity in the Office of Space Science.
It was a management role, in charge of astronomy-related programs and grants. “I knew that taking on this responsibility would mean that I could no longer do research,” she told a NASA interviewer, “but the challenge of formulating a program from scratch that I believed would influence astronomy for decades to come was too great to resist.”
NASA says that above all, Roman made the Hubble Space Telescope a reality. She set up a committee of astronomers and engineers in the mid-1960s “to envision a telescope that could accomplish important scientific goals. She convinced NASA and [the US] Congress that it was a priority to launch the most powerful space telescope the world had ever seen”.
Edwin Hubble is rightly known as the father of the instrument that bears his name, but at NASA Nancy Roman is called “the mother of the Hubble Space Telescope”.
In May of this year NASA announced that its next-generation space telescope currently under development, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, would be named in her honour.
Roman died on Christmas Day, 2018.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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