News / USA

Mother of Hubble Always Aimed for Stars

Nancy Grace Roman was NASA's first chief of astronomy

Nancy Grace Roman, 86, was NASA's first chief of astronomy and is considered the 'mother' of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Nancy Grace Roman, 86, was NASA's first chief of astronomy and is considered the 'mother' of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Multimedia

Audio

Back in the 1950s few women in the United States worked outside of the home, and even fewer earned doctorate degrees or went on to have professional careers.

However, as the first chief of astronomy at the U.S. space agency, Nancy Grace Roman is a notable exception.   

Mesmerized by the moon

Roman’s fascination with space began not long after she was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1925, the only child of a teacher and a scientist.

“My grandmother sent back a letter that mother had written when I was four, saying that my favorite thing to draw was the moon," she says. "Certainly by the time I was in seventh grade, I knew I had to have a long education if I wanted to become an astronomer, but I figured I’d try it and if I didn’t get far enough I could always end up teaching in high school or math or physics.”

Pursuing her interest in astronomy was not easy. Women of her generation were systematically discouraged from going into science.

“I still remember asking my high school guidance teacher for permission to take a second year of algebra instead of a fifth year of Latin," she says. "She looked down her nose at me and sneered, ‘What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?’ That was the sort of reception that I got most of the way.”

Shaking off stereotypes

But Roman was determined to become an astronomer and learn everything she could about stars. She went to college, studied science and earned her doctorate in astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1949.

Nancy Grace Roman, center, with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office at the White House in 1962.
Nancy Grace Roman, center, with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office at the White House in 1962.

She spent the next decade teaching and working as a research associate but soon realized that, as a woman, her prospects for advancement at a research institution were limited.

So, in 1959, she accepted a job at NASA, the U.S. space agency, to set up a program in space astronomy.

As part of her new job, Roman travelled around the country, trying to understand what astronomers really wanted.

“Astronomers had been wanting to get observations from above the atmosphere for a long time. Looking through the atmosphere is somewhat like looking through a piece of old, stained glass," Roman says. "The glass has defects in it, so the image is blurred from that.”

Honing Hubble

That need for clear, sharp images from space was all the motivation she needed.

Roman helped develop The Hubble Space Telescope, a large, space-based observatory which has revolutionized astronomy by providing unprecedented deep and clear views of the universe.
Roman helped develop The Hubble Space Telescope, a large, space-based observatory which has revolutionized astronomy by providing unprecedented deep and clear views of the universe.

“I set up a committee of astronomers from all over the country, plus some engineers from NASA, to sit down together and decide what we should do, what did the astronomers want to do, what did the engineers think was possible to do, and I led that effort for several years until we had a fairly detailed design of what we thought would make sense.”

That design was the Hubble Space Telescope, an instrument that could soar above the atmosphere, orbit the earth, and capture and transmit clear observations of the universe back to earth.

NASA’s current chief astronomer, who worked with Roman at the agency, calls her “the mother of the Hubble Space Telescope.”

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped this image of the planetary nebula on July 27, 2009. It is one of Nancy Grace Roman's favorite Hubble images.
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped this image of the planetary nebula on July 27, 2009. It is one of Nancy Grace Roman's favorite Hubble images.

“Which is often forgotten by our younger generation of astronomers who make their careers by using Hubble Space Telescope," says Ed Weiler. "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 that stuff, who really helped to sell the Hubble Space Telescope, organize the astronomers, who eventually convinced Congress to fund it.”

Encouraging others to reach for the stars

Since retiring from NASA in 1979, Roman spends much of her time consulting, teaching and lecturing across the country, all the while continuing to be a passionate advocate for science.

Nancy Grace Roman teaches astronomy to 5th graders at Shepherd Elementary School in Washington, DC, in the late 1990s.
Nancy Grace Roman teaches astronomy to 5th graders at Shepherd Elementary School in Washington, DC, in the late 1990s.

Today, at the age of 86, Roman enjoys motivating young girls to dream big.

“One of the reasons I like working with schools is to try to convince women that they can be scientists and that science can be fun,” she says.

Roman hopes she's inspired young women to set aside their inhibitions and reach for the stars, just as she did.

You May Like

Multimedia Obama, Modi Break Nuclear Deal Deadlock

Impasse over liability issues had been stalling bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation; deal reached at start of US president's three-day visit to India More

WHO's Late Efforts in Tackling Ebola Highlight Need for Reform

Health experts debate measures to reform agency’s response to global public health emergencies in special one-day session on deadly outbreak More

One Tumultuous Year in Power for CAR's President

As sectarian violence raged across Central African Republic, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has Herculean task: to end civil war and put country back on right track More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youthi
X
Julie Taboh
January 23, 2015 11:08 PM
Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.
Video

Video Secular, Religious Kurds Face Off in Southeast Turkey

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by violence between religious and secular Kurds. Dorian Jones reports on the reasons behind the stand-off from the region's main city of Diyarbakir, which suffered the bloodiest fighting.
Video

Video Kenya: Misuse of Antibiotics Leading to Resistance by Immune System

In Kenya, the rise of drug resistant bacteria could reverse the gains made by medical science over diseases that were once treatable. Kenyans could be at risk of fatalities as a result if the power in antibiotics is not preserved. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story from Nairobi.
Video

Video Solar-Powered Plane Getting Ready to Circumnavigate Globe

Pilots of the solar plane that already set records flying without a drop of fuel are close to making their first attempt to fly the craft around the globe. They plan to do it in 25 flying days over a five month period. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video How Experts Decide Ethiopia Has the Best Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee has been ranked as the best in the world by an international group of coffee connoisseurs. Not surprisingly, coffee is a top export for the country. But at home it is a source of pride. Marthe van der Wolf in Addis Ababa decided to find out what makes the bean and brew so special and how experts make their determinations.
Video

Video Yazidi Refugees at Center of Political Fight Between Turkey, Kurds

The treatment of thousands of Yazidis refugees who fled to Turkey to escape attacks by Islamic State militants has become the center of a dispute between the Turkish government and the country's pro-Kurdish movement. VOA's Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video World’s Richest 1% Forecast to Own More Than Half of Global Wealth

The combined wealth of the world's richest 1 percent will overtake that of the remaining 99 percent at some point in 2016, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam. Campaigners are demanding that policymakers take action to address the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid