Born in 1925, raised in a time when women were discouraged from pursuing a science career, Nancy Grace Roman not only succeeded in establishing herself in a scientific career but also she left a legacy for future astronomers. Often called the "Mother of Hubble" for her efforts in making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality, Dr. Roman was instrumental in establishing a new era of space-based astronomical instrumentation.
Nancy Grace Roman was born in Nashville, Tennessee, to music teacher Georgia Smith Roman and geophysicist Irwin Roman. About age 12 the family moved to Baltimore when Nancy Grace's father, Irwin, was hired as Senior Geophysicist at the Baltimore, MD office of the US Geological Survey. Although discouraged by those around her, Roman knew by the time she was in high school that she wanted to pursue her passion for astronomy. She attended Western High School in Baltimore where she participated in an accelerated program and was graduated in three years.
Dr. Roman attended Swarthmore College in 1946 where she earned her bachelor of arts in astronomy. While she studied there, she worked at the Sproul Observatory. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in the same field at the University of Chicago in 1949. Dr. Roman was the first Chief of Astronomy in NASA's Office of Space Science, setting up the initial program and was the first woman to hold an executive position at the space agency.
She was involved in most of the high-profile projects at NASA. Among the many space missions she helped develop were three orbiting solar observatories - the Orbiting Astronomical Observatories - a pair of satellites to study the sky in ultraviolet (which cannot be seen from Earth); the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), which took pictures of the leftover radiation from the Big Bang; and the Hubble Space Telescope. Although she had retired from NASA in 1979, she returned as a consultant to coordinate the engineers and astronomers working on the project. Because of her contribution, she often is called the "Mother of Hubble."
Outside her work, Dr. Roman enjoyed going to lectures and concerts and was active in the American Association of University Women. Throughout her career, Dr. Roman was also an active public speaker and educator, and an advocate for women in the sciences.
In 2017, the Lego toy company released a set of figurines honoring four pioneering women of NASA - including astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, computer programmer Margaret Hamilton and Dr. Roman.
Dr. Roman died at the age of 93 on December 25, 2018.
My career was quite unusual so my main advice to someone interested in a career similar to my own is to remain open to change and new opportunities. I like to tell students that the jobs I took after my Ph.D. were not in existence only a few years before. New opportunities can open up for you in this ever changing field.
Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2020.
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