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

Video British Fighters on Frontline of Islamic State Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign jihadists More

Pakistan's Political Turmoil Again Shines Spotlight on Military

Thousands of protesters calling for PM Sharif to step down continue protests in front of parliament, as critics fear political impasse could spur another military coup More

Photogallery Ebola Quarantines Spark Anxiety in Liberian Capital

Food prices rise sharply as residents attempting purchases clash with security forces, leaving one person dead 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.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid