The Mother of Hubble

Nancy Roman was born in Nashville in 1925 but moved around much of her young life as her father was a geophysicist doing research. When Nancy was eleven, she developed an interest in astronomy which would set her on a life’s course.

Nancy went to Swarthmore to study astronomy but found little encouragement from the Dean of women or the Chair of the Astronomy Department. She was eventually allowed to pursue the degree that was her passion and use student telescopes. After receiving her undergraduate degree, she went to the University of Chicago for a PhD. She again found little encouragement.

After completing her PhD, Nancy did research and some teaching at different institutions. Her published work was highly cited, but again, she experienced a lack of opportunities because of her gender. It was during this time that she became intrigued by the possibilities of space astronomy.

She was given an opportunity to create a space astronomy program at NASA. She accepted the opportunity because it would allow for pioneering work in astronomy. She was the first woman executive at NASA. The year was 1960.

Much of Nancy’s initial role at NASA was convincing the astronomy community of the benefits of space astronomy. There was a lot of hostility to astronomy from space at the time. Her first initiative was the creation of orbiting astronomical observatories. Over time, a number of space astronomy projects were launched under Nancy’s program.

Initially Nancy was doubtful that a satellite could be launched to carry a telescope of any size. A satellite carrying a six-inch satellite was a challenge. When a proposal was made for a nine-foot telescope, Nancy was doubtful of its feasibility. But Nancy became persuaded because of the intense interest of the astronomy community for a satellite above the Earth’s atmosphere.

She became the project manager for what became the Hubble Telescope. This involved facilitating the conceptual development with engineers and astronomers. She also had to convince Congress to fund it. For her efforts, Nancy became known as the Mother of the Hubble telescope. Her efforts enabled future astronomers to forge their careers using the Hubble.

Nancy took early retirement from NASA to care for her mother. With all of the acclaim that Nancy received in her career, one would think she would relax with the memories of her accomplishment. But the true mark of a hidden hero is what they do later in their career. For Nancy, that meant teaching advanced science students in underserved areas. Then she recorded books on astronomy for the visually impaired and those with reading disorders. She passed away in 2018 at the age of 93.

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“Regretfully, history has forgotten a lot in today’s internet age, but it was Nancy in the old days before the internet and before Google and e-mail and all of that stuff who really helped to sell the Hubble Space Telescope, or gauge the astronomers, who eventually convinced Congress to fund it.”  – Edward Weiler (Chief Astronomer at NASA)

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