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Pioneering Astronomer Nancy G. Roman was “Mother of the Hubble Space Telescope. Nancy Roman knew from a very early age that she wanted to be an astronomer. Her greatest challenge was convincing the world that she could be a very good one. Overcoming traditional gender roles in the scientific community was almost as daunting a challenge as paving the way for the Hubble Space Telescope, an achievement for which she is most remembered. Roman, known as the “Mother of Hubble,” passed away on Christmas Day 2018 at the age of 93. She was NASA’s first chief of astronomy and one of the first women executives for the agency. Her achievements will live on
Her family moved around the country frequently when she was growing up. 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, her guidance counselor, who belittled her desire to take mathematics instead of Latin, discouraged her.
A promising student at Swarthmore College, Roman still had to ignore warnings from the Dean of Women and other teachers about studying science, ultimately earning 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,” National Geographic has reported
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.
Seeing little chance for tenure as a woman, Roman took a position at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. where she eventually won the trust of her peers and began to work in radio astronomy, geodetics, and microwave spectroscopy.
She attended a lecture on the origin of the moon given at the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the late 1950s where she was presented with the opportunity to work for NASA and set up a program in space astronomy.
As she told National Geographic, “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. That’s all there is to it.”
She dedicated her time at NASA to promoting, 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. Roman tirelessly laid the foundation that eventually made NASA’s space-based observatory a reality.
She retired from NASA in 1979 having prepared the way for Hubble’s eventual launch in 1990. “My work helped others explore the evolution of the galaxy,” she told National Geographic. “I did not let the fact that I was a woman deter me.”
Source: National Geographic, Dec. 31, 2018