Nancy Roman’s curiosity about the cosmos began at a very early age and lasted until the day of her death. Her father, geophysicist Irwin Roman, would answer her scientific questions and her mother, Georgia Smith Roman, teach her about the stars, the birds and plants. "It was probably my parents who inspired me the most,” she stated in an interview with NASA once. Society at the time dictated that "women should not be scientists". Space captivated her from an early age and, although it was not easy to follow her passion, she never gave up.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Swarthmore College and later on a doctorate from the University of Chicago, where her thesis advisor ignored her for six months in a row. She finally started working at the university’s Yerkes Observatory and later joined NASA. It was precisely in the American space agency that she finally felt that men treated her as an equal.
Her history with Hubble
The famous astronomer led to the launch of the Hubble space telescope, hence her nickname as "Hubble’s mother". Roman joined NASA’s headquarters shortly after the agency was founded in 1958 and was the first chief astronomer at NASA’s Office of Space Science and also the first woman to hold an executive position at the agency.
Astronomer Lyman Spitzer had previously proposed the idea of a space-based optical telescope in 1946, but the necessary budget and technology for such a project were not available. It would have to wait a few more years, until Roman began to take steps in this direction in 1960, three decades before the instrument was finally released. She directly supervised the planning and early development of what became the Hubble Space Telescope.
It was precisely in 1960 that she brought together some 30 NASA astronomers and engineers to discuss the idea of a large general-use space telescope that would cost 20 times the price of the largest ground-based telescope. The project was in progress.
Throughout the 1980s, she helped plan and develop the telescope, learning what the scientific community needed and what kind of instrument would be most useful for astronomy. She fought for funding its construction and launch and, despite some problems with her gyroscopes, the Hubble will outlive its 'mother'.
An advocate for women in science
Throughout her career, Roman was a passionate advocate for women in science, teaching astronomy to primary school children in the 1990s.
She has received many lifetime accolades, including the Women in Aerospace Careers Award and the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award. A pioneer of space.
Roman died on December 25, 2018 at the age of 93.