From The Editors Science

Nancy Grace Roman: The “Mother of Hubble’” is Dead at 93

American astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, one of the first female executives at NASA and the space agency’s first chief of astronomy, passed away on Christmas Day after a prolonged illness. She was 93.

According to the Washington Post, Laura Verreau, a cousin, confirmed that the NASA pioneer breathed her last at a hospital and that she had lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had no immediate survivors.

In a tweeted tribute, NASA Administrator Kin Bridenstine said that Dr. Roman’s contributions to the space agency would live on and that his prayers were with the deceased’s family.

Dr. Roman will always be remembered as the “Mother of Hubble” for her role in making one of the largest and most versatile telescopes a space reality.

Named after Edwin Hubble, one of the most prominent astronomers of all time, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has been providing humankind with great science ever since it was put into low-Earth orbit in 1990 – and is still going strong.

Considering the skepticism over viability and cost that the Hubble program had faced ever since the concept was first floated by Lyman Spitzer Jr. back in 1946, Roman’s contribution is even more commendable.

She was instrumental in coordinating with astronomers and mobilizing a nationwide lobbying effort when government cuts in public spending in 1974 forced Congress to cancel the Hubble funding.

In an account of the development of Hubble entitled, “The Universe in a Mirror,” space historian Robert Zimmerman writes:

“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.

“More importantly, it was [Dr. Roman] more than anyone who convinced the astronomical community to get behind space astronomy.”

What’s even more praiseworthy is the fact that she achieved all of that at a time when science and space were considered a man’s domain.

Back then, it was almost a taboo for aspiring young women to even contemplate taking up science as a profession.

“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 recalled during an interview with NPR (National Public Radio).

“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,” she said.

Not only did she do the unthinkable, but she also laid the path for other women to follow, advocating for women in the sciences by way of creating awareness as a public speaker and educator.

Ironically, Roman’s immense contribution to the Hubble program “is often forgotten by our younger generation of astronomers who make their careers by using Hubble Space Telescope,” her former colleague at NASA and the agency’s current chief astronomer, Ed Weiler, told the Voice of America in 2011.

“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,” he said.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Roman’s interest in the skies started developing at an early age; she was only eleven when she and her school friends formed an astronomy club.

By the time she reached high school, she had already made up her mind about pursuing a career in astronomy, the all-around discouragement notwithstanding.

By 1949, Roman had graduated from Western High School in Baltimore, Maryland, got a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and a doctorate in the same field from the University of Chicago, in Illinois.

After her PhD., Roman worked at the University’s Yerkes Observatory for six years, eventually leaving the job because of the limited options for women that prevailed at the university back then.

Roman’s tryst with her alma maters continued, as she joined the Swarthmore College Board of Observers in 1980 where she served until 1988.

In her capacity as NASA’s first chief of astronomy, she was the main architect of the agency’s astronomy program, traveling the length and breadth of the country to hold meetings with astronomy departments, updating them about the program’s progress, educating and motivating astronomers, and more.

During her 21-year stint at the space agency, Roman held several positions, including Chief of Astronomy and Solar Physics and Chief of Astronomy and Relativity, to name a couple.

During a campus visit in the 1980s, when Roman was asked by a faculty member about the reason behind her success, she replied with a spontaneous, “The ability to write and speak easily and well,” she recounted in an article entitled, “Following my lucky star,” published in the ‘Science’ magazine in December 2016.

Explaining her reply, she wrote:

“I answered this way because many of the activities I engaged in during my 21-year career running NASA’s astronomy program—justifying projects to my supervisors, Congress, and the Bureau of the Budget; meeting with the research community to spark interest in the possibilities of observations from space; speaking to lay audiences to excite them about basic science—required that I present my case clearly and concisely.”

She went on to say that she still believed that communication was a key factor in her success, but with the benefit of hindsight she realized that “perseverance—or stubbornness—and a certain amount of luck were equally important.”

RIP, Nancy Grace Roman!

Here are some Twitter tributes to the “Mother of Hubble.”

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