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Nancy Grace Roman, astronomer celebrated as ‘mother’ of Hubble, dies at 93

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 29, 2018, 3:33 p.m.

Astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, pictured in a still from a NASA-produced video, is seen at age 88. Roman died Dec. 25 at a hospital in Germantown, Maryland. She was 93. (NASA)
Astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, pictured in a still from a NASA-produced video, is seen at age 88. Roman died Dec. 25 at a hospital in Germantown, Maryland. She was 93. (NASA)
By Emily Langer Washington Post

When Nancy Grace Roman requested permission to take a second algebra course in high school, a teacher demanded to know “what lady would take mathematics instead of Latin.” In college, a professor remarked that he often tried to dissuade women from majoring in physics. And after receiving a doctorate in astronomy, she concluded that a female professor in the field had little hope of obtaining tenure.

Undeterred by the barriers to women in the sciences, Roman found a professional home at NASA. Even there, she recalled in an interview years later, she felt compelled to use the honorific “Dr.”

“Otherwise,” she said, “I could not get past the secretaries.”

After joining the fledgling space agency in 1959, Roman became the first chief of astronomy at NASA headquarters, a role that made her one of the agency’s first female executives. She remained in that position for nearly two decades before her retirement in 1979.

Roman, who was celebrated as a trailblazer for female scientists and a driving force behind advances including the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, died Dec. 25 at a hospital in Germantown, Maryland. She was 93. A cousin, Laura Bates Verreau, confirmed the death but said she did not yet know the cause.

Roman spent much of her career helping develop, fund and promote technology that would help scientists see more clearly beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

“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 told Voice of America in 2011. “The glass has defects in it, so the image is blurred from that.”

NASA credited her with leading what it described as the agency’s “first successful astronomical mission,” the launch of Orbiting Solar Observatory-1 in 1962 to measure the electromagnetic radiation of the sun, among other things.

She also coordinated among scientists and engineers for the successful launch of geodetic satellites, used for measuring and mapping Earth, and several orbiting astronomical observatories that offered an early glimpse of the discoveries that might be reaped by sending observational technology beyond the veil of the atmosphere.

But she was perhaps most associated with the early legwork for the Hubble Space Telescope, the first major telescope to be sent into space for the purpose of gathering photographs of and data from the universe. Hubble is widely considered to have yielded the most significant astronomical observations since Galileo began using a telescope in the early 1600s.

The design and launch of Hubble was fraught by scientific, financial and bureaucratic difficulties that Roman worked to resolve. Lobbying for early funding for Hubble, whose price tag reached $1.5 billion, she recalled arguing that every American, for the cost of one ticket to the movies, could be assured years of scientific discoveries.

“During the 1960s and early 1970s there was no one at NASA who was more important in getting the first designs and concepts for Hubble funded and completed,” space historian Robert Zimmerman wrote in “The Universe in a Mirror,” an account of the creation of Hubble. “More importantly, it was Roman more than anyone who convinced the astronomical community to get behind space astronomy.”

The telescope did not launch until 1990, more than a decade after Dr. Roman retired, but when it did, its photographs of the cosmos electrified the world.

In 1994, when NASA announced the repair of a faulty mirror and other problems that had caused its early photographs to be blurry, Roman was in the audience, knitting.

Edward Weiler, then Hubble’s chief scientist, surprised her by recognizing her publicly, according to Zimmerman’s account. “If Lyman Spitzer was the father of the Hubble Space Telescope,” Weiler said, referring to the noted astrophysicist, “then Nancy Roman was its mother.”

Nancy Grace Roman was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 16, 1925. Her father was a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Her mother was a former music teacher and a nature enthusiast who took her daughter outside at night to view the stars.

Roman, who recalled founding an astronomy club at age 11, moved frequently for her father’s work before landing in Baltimore, where she graduated from high school. She received a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1946 and a PhD from the University of Chicago in 1949, both in astronomy.

After early work at the University of Chicago and the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, she was hired by the Naval Research Laboratory in 1955, working in radio astronomy. NASA was formed three years later, with Roman among its earliest employees. She spent the final part of her career at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where she oversaw the Astronomical Data Center.

Her honors included the Women in Aerospace Lifetime Achievement Award and the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award. She helped promote professional opportunities for women through the American Association of University Women and spoke frequently in schools to encourage children to take on the challenges of science.

Roman resided in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at the time of her death and had no immediate survivors.

In 2017, Lego released a set of figurines honoring four pioneering women of NASA: Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel in space; Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space; Margaret Hamilton, a computer programmer who created the software necessary for the Apollo missions; and Roman.

“I am glad,” she once told Science magazine, “I ignored the many people who told me that I could not be an astronomer.”

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