As a child, Nancy Grace Roman was curious about the world. Thanks to her father, who was a scientist and encouraged inquisitiveness, and her mother, who pointed out the wonders of the night sky, Roman became fascinated by the stars. She wanted to know what they were made of, what they were like and how they behaved. By age 11, she formed her own astronomy club; by age 12, she resolved to become an astronomer. Little did she know, she would become one of the most celebrated female pioneers of astronomy in America.
However, she had a long road yet to travel. It was the 1930s, and there would be barriers. For instance, in high school, she asked her guidance teacher for permission to take a second year of algebra instead of a fifth year of Latin. “She looked down her nose at me and sneered, ‘What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?'” Roman recalled in a 2018 Voice of America interview. “That was the general attitude of women going into science,” said Roman.
Despite this mindset, which would follow her through graduate school and into her early career, Roman became NASA‘s first chief of astronomy and its first female executive. She was even nicknamed the “mother” of the Hubble Telescope because of her leadership in helping to plan and manage the project that lead to the famous space-based instrument. Roman blazed a remarkable trail for women scientists, bolstering America’s space program and inspiring future female pioneers to pursue careers in STEM.
Nancy Grace Roman was born on May 16, 1925, in Nashville, Tennessee as the only child of Georgia Frances and Irwin Roman. Her father was a geophysicist who worked for an oil company and moved the family from Tennessee to Oklahoma, Texas, New Jersey, Michigan and, finally, Nevada — all when Roman was still young. It was in Nevada, with it’s clear, dark skies, that Roman fell in love with the stars. She organized her friends into an astronomy club and frequently carried around a small, thin pocketbook called “Seeing Stars,” which had maps of the constellations. “I still have the book,” she said in a 1980 oral history interview for NASA.
Her fascination with the stars and her natural ability to bring people together would shine later in life. But first, she had to get through school — during a time when women were discouraged from scientific pursuits. At Swarthmore College, her professor of astronomy, Dr. Peter van de Kamp, gave her the “first lukewarm encouragement” for choosing science. He told her, “I usually try to dissuade girls from majoring in physics, but I think maybe you might make it.”
At the University of Chicago, she again found resistance while working on her PhD. Her thesis adviser, William Wilson Morgan, ignored her for six months. “He didn’t want anything to do with me,” Roman said in a 2018 video interview with NASA. She was also encouraged to accept a teaching position at another college before she completed her degree, but she persisted. Roman acquired her PhD and became the first female member of the department’s staff.
It was during this time that Roman made an important discovery. She noticed that some stars containing elements heavier than hydrogen orbited the Milky Way’s galactic plane in a circular path, whereas other stars that had spewed heavy elements into interstellar space (seeding new stars) had more eccentric orbits. Roman surmised that the heavier stars were younger than those with irregular orbits. “This was the first indication that common stars were not all the same age,” she said in an interview with NASA, describing it as one of her favorite moments in her career. “I realized that I had discovered something important that no one had ever suspected,” she said.
Despite gaining the respect of her peers and making important contributions to astronomy at the University of Chicago, Roman did not believe that she would be granted tenure as a full professor. She accepted a job with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, where she worked as a radio astronomer. In 1958, she caught wind of a new governmental organization being formed — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Many prominent NRL scientists were being recruited to join, including one of Roman’s colleagues, Jack Clark, who had been NRL’s director of geophysics and astronomy. When he asked Roman if she knew anyone who might be interested in setting up a program in space astronomy at NASA, she took it as an invitation to apply. She got the job.
For the next 20 years, she served as NASA’s Chief of Astronomy and Relativity Programs, initiating many programs around space observations. Among numerous missions that she helped organize, the Hubble Space Telescope stands the most well-known. She knew that engineers at NASA wanted to build a rocket-launched telescope and that astronomers wanted one, too, but that the groups couldn’t agree on the specifications. So, she organized a meeting between them to hash it out. They did.
Over the years, she worked to convince the stakeholders, including NASA and Congress, that spending an estimated $400 million in taxpayer money was worth it. She estimated that “…for the price of one night at the movies, each American would receive 15 years of exciting discoveries.”
“She made it possible to get early telescopes up [into space] to learn what needed to be learned,” science historian Bob Zimmerman told Space.com back in 2009. “As soon as that technology started to mature, she was pushing for the design work. Her hard-nosed nature helped get the telescope built.”
Over the course of her career, she won many awards, including the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award, the NASA Outstanding Scientific Leadership Award and the Women in Aerospace’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Roman retired from NASA in 1979 at the age of 54, 11 years before the Hubble Space Telescope would launch. But for her early planning work and advocacy, she was nicknamed the “Mother of Hubble.”
She continued to work, first as a consultant and then eventually as the director of the Astronomical Data Center. In 1997, she retired for good and began volunteering. Roman was drawn to educating children and spent several years with an organization called Journey to the Universe, which brought space-based educational programs to schools in the Washington D.C. area. In 2001, NASA established the Roman Technology Fellowship in Astrophysics, meant to give early career researchers the opportunity to develop leadership skills.
On her 90th birthday in 2015, Roman looked back on her long career in an interview with NASA and expressed happiness that women could finally land senior jobs in academia and business. “They’re not being quite as discouraged as I was,” she said. But there was still room for growth, she said, adding that more women needed to be in senior positions and salaries were still too low. She offered this advice to women looking to advance to higher levels of management: “Remain open to change and new opportunities.”
Roman died in 2018 at the age of 93. She will always be remembered for her passion and advocacy for science.