Photograph by Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo
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Nancy Grace Roman poses with a model of the Orbiting Solar Observatory in 1962.

Photograph by Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Remembering Nancy Roman, NASA astronomer and Hubble telescope champion

Known as the "mother of Hubble," the agency's first chief of astronomy was a driving force behind the start of space-based observations.

Nancy Grace Roman, the boundary-breaking astronomer and NASA executive who was a tireless advocate for the Hubble Space Telescope, died on December 25 at the age of 93. Often called “the mother of Hubble” for her vital role with the famed observatory, Roman was NASA’s first chief of astronomy and one of the first women executives for the agency. Throughout her long life, she turned a difficult fight to obtain recognition in the sciences into a career that gave humanity the chance to peer into the furthest depths of the universe.

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Roman was born on May 16, 1925 in Nashville, Tennessee. Her mother, Georgia Smith Roman, was a music teacher and her father, Irwin Roman, was a geophysicist. As a child, Roman and her family moved from Nashville to Oklahoma, Texas, New Jersey, and Michigan as Irwin pursued a career in the growing field of geology-driven prospecting.

Roman cited both of her parents’ interest in the natural world—and her time beneath the clear night skies of Reno, Nevada—as an inspiration for her early interest in astronomy. Fueled by a fascination for the stars, she began her own astronomy club with a group of neighborhood girls when she was 11 years old. Though she knew she wanted to be an astronomer by the time she entered high school, she was discouraged by her high school guidance counselor, who berated her desire to take mathematics instead of Latin. (Learn about other "difficult" women who defied conventions, from Jane Goodall to J.K. Rowling.)

Despite the doubts that surrounded her scientific ambitions, Roman fought to receive a secondary education in astronomy and physics. A promising student at Swarthmore College, Roman still had to ignore warnings from the Dean of Women and other teachers about studying science, ultimately earned her B.A. in Astronomy in 1946. She later recalled that the only encouragement she was given during her undergraduate years was by a teacher who told her, “I usually try to dissuade girls from majoring in physics but I think maybe you might make it.”

Nevertheless, Roman persisted, recalling that “I never seriously considered any occupation other than astronomy.”

Science in space

Roman went on to receive her Ph.D. in Astronomy at the University of Chicago in 1949, where she worked for six more years at the Yerkes Observatory as an instructor and assistant professor. But Roman was convinced that she had little chance of gaining tenure as a woman.

“When I looked around, I could see that there weren’t any women in research positions in astronomy,” she told National Geographic. Instead of waiting for her career to take off, she took a position at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. There, Roman was befuddled by her initial lack of duties.

“I was puzzled, because I couldn’t figure out why they hired me if they didn’t have work for me,” she told National Geographic. Later, she found out what the problem was—her predecessor, also a woman, had performed badly, and her colleagues were reluctant to give Roman any work. “I’m sure that there wouldn’t have been a problem with another man,” she said, “but I was the token woman.” Eventually, she won the trust of her peers and began to work in radio astronomy, geodetics, and microwave spectroscopy.

In the late 1950s, Roman attended a lecture on the origin of the moon given at the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration. There, she was approached by a NASA official who asked if she knew anyone who might want to come to the fledgling agency and set up a program in space astronomy. “The idea of coming in with an absolutely clean slate to set up a program I thought was likely to influence astronomy for 50 years was just a challenge that I couldn’t turn down,” she later recalled. “That’s all there is to it.”

At the time, NASA was so new that it was viewed with suspicion by astronomers, who doubted that in-space observation would ever be possible. But Roman was energized by the idea of science in space. She dedicated her time at NASA to initiating and supporting in-space observation, from satellites to the Scout probe. In 1964, her name was even given to a newly discovered asteroid, 2516 Roman.

But Roman’s crowning achievement at NASA was perhaps the greatest gift ever given to astrophysics: the Hubble Space Telescope, the groundbreaking satellite observatory that has generated more than 1.2 million observations and 14,000 scientific papers since its 1990 launch. Despite funding cuts and the need to educate the public on why it should invest in the most expensive scientific instrument ever made, Roman tirelessly laid the foundation that eventually made NASA’s vision of the ultimate space-based observatory a reality.

In 1978, Roman hired Edward J. Weiler, who served as chief scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope from 1979 through 1998. To him, Roman’s true strength was in her tenacity and political savvy.

“She was a real schemer,” he told National Geographic. “It was a tough fight.” After Congress cut funding for the telescope in 1974, Roman organized a years-long, behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign that secured the money needed for the project. “Hubble would not have happened without her leadership, her perseverance, her political sense,” Weiler said.

Stars in her eyes

With funding secured and a launch date set, Roman stepped away from the telescope’s development, retiring from NASA in 1979 and starting work as a consultant for spaceflight contractors. Recognized with a Federal Women’s Award and honorary doctorates from Swarthmore College, Bates College, Russell Sage College, and Hood College, she also had a NASA fellowship in astrophysics named after her. Near the end of her life, she continued to give lectures on astronomy, attend scientific meetings, and keep up-to-date with NASA colloquia. She attended daily physical fitness classes and frequent cultural events well into her 90s.

Though many might consider Hubble to be her greatest legacy, Roman herself told National Geographic that she was proudest of two things. The first was her research on stars: During her time at Yerkes, Roman discovered that stars on circular orbits with more heavy elements are younger than those with more random orbits and fewer heavy elements. She also observed BD+67 922, a star that would later be renamed AG Draconis.

“My work helped others explore the evolution of the galaxy,” she recalled. So did her contributions to the other project that made her proud: the International Ultraviolet Explorer, which facilitated over a hundred thousand observations of the stars.

When asked by National Geographic what she would tell other women about her legacy as an astrophysicist, Roman laughed, then became serious: “I did not let the fact that I was a woman deter me.”