The astronomical community marked the passing of former NASA Chief of Astronomy Nancy Grace Roman earlier this week. Roman, who founded the agency’s program for space astronomy in 1959 and played a central role in planning and developing the Hubble Space Telescope, was the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA.
Roman was working as a radio astronomer at the Naval Research Laboratory in 1959 when a colleage at NASA — which was just a few months old at the time, having been formed from NACA in 1958 — asked if she knew anyone who would be interested in setting up a program in space astronomy at the new agency. That had the potential to give astronomers a chance to get a view of the stars from above the distorting lens of Earth’s atmosphere for the first time, and Roman saw an opportunity.
“The idea of coming in with an absolutely clean slate to set up a program that I thought was likely to influence astronomy for 50 years was just a challenge that I couldn’t turn down. That’s all there is to it,” she told an American Institute of Physics oral history interview in 1980. Roman’s early work at NASA included arguing for, and supporting the development of, pointing control systems for the vehicles that would eventually carry astronomy into space. She also worked to build support for the program among the notoriously independent astronomical community. As Chief of Astronomy, Roman planned a program of satellite and rocket launches to carry astronomical instruments into space, and she administered grants to help fund the research.
Through the 1980s, she helped plan and develop the Hubble Space Telescope, which meant getting input from astronomers around the world to learn what the scientific community needed and what sort of instrument would be most useful to astronomy in the coming years, and then managing the teams of engineers working to implement those ideas. She also advocated for the costly project with Congress and NASA administration, persuading them to fund Hubble’s construction and launch. For those efforts, her colleagues remember her as the “mother of Hubble, and the space telescope she helped bring into existence will, despite some recent trouble with its gyroscopes, outlive its mother. And the data and images Hubble sends home will eventually outlive the telescope itself.
In 1980, Roman described a meeting with her undergraduate dean of astronomy in the early 1940s. “He was using plates that were taken by his predecessors 50 years earlier, and in turn he felt that he was obligated to replace those with plates that his successors would use 50 years in the future,” she told the AIP interviewer. That conversation stayed in her mind decades later, and with Hubble, that’s exactly what she accomplished.
Hubble’s 1990 launch was the culmination of a lifelong fascination with astronomy — and, apparently, a lifelong gift for leadership. In 1936, then-11 year-old Roman organized the girls in her neighborhood into an astronomy club which met once a week to study the constellations, and she read every astronomy book she could get her hands on at the public library. “It was probably my parents who inspired me most. My father was a scientist and answered my scientific questions while my mother took me on walks and showed me birds and plants. She also took me out at night and showed me the constellations and the aurora,” she told a NASA interviewer. Their support paid off when she graduated from the University of Chicago in 1949 with a PhD in astronomy.
Roman retired from NASA in 1979 and spent the next several years of her career as a contractor working at Goddard Space Flight Center. LEGO included her as a minifigure in a set of important women in space history, alongside Margaret Hamilton, Mae Jemison, and Sally Ride. She died on December 25, 2018 at the age of 93.
“I like to tell students that the jobs I took after my Ph.D. were not in existence only a few years before. New opportunities can open up for you in this ever changing field,” she told a NASA interviewer on her 90th birthday.