The scientists who opened the skies to humanity without ever leaving the ground.
In 1961, Nancy Grace Roman was already the first Chief of Astronomy in NASA's Office of Space Science. She developed that program in a time before the second wave of the Women’s Movement in the United States began, when banks often refused women credit in their own names and there was still an active medical debate about whether women could ever physically endure spaceflight someday. But Roman opened the skies to humanity in new ways without ever leaving the ground.
She earned her Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Chicago in 1949 and worked at the Yerkes Observatory there for six years afterward. She joined the radio astronomy group at the Naval Research Laboratory, becoming the head of the microwave spectroscopy section. As she recalled in 1980 in an oral history interview with National Air and Space Museum curator David DeVorkin, when she heard that NASA might set up a space astronomy program, she wanted to lead it: “The idea of coming in with an absolutely clean slate to set up a program that I thought was likely to influence astronomy for 50 years was just a challenge that I couldn't turn down. That's all there is to it.” She joined NASA in 1959, just after the agency’s founding.
Roman was not a “hidden figure,” but rather a recognized leader in her field. As the founding chief of astronomy and solar physics, she was the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA. But she became best known as the “Mother of the Hubble Space Telescope.” She began working on the question of putting astronomical instruments into space as early as 1962, puzzling about how an accurate pointing system could be incorporated on a telescope or detector that would be small enough to be launched by the rockets of the day. Her advocacy for putting the tools of astronomy in space, beyond the blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere, eventually led to the Hubble Space Telescope.
She was a longtime friend of the Museum and a welcome contributor to the scholarly communities working on space history and space science. Even in her 80s and 90s, she frequently participated in scholarly meetings in the Washington, DC metro area.
In a coda that underscores her significance, Roman was one of the inspiring women whom MIT writer Maia Weinstock chose to depict in her “Women of NASA” LEGO kit (produced for sale by the company beginning in 2017). The white-haired plastic figurine stands next to a tiny Hubble Space Telescope, as a tribute to a career of leadership in space astronomy.
Images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope stand not only as scientific contributions but as breathtaking visions of the beauty of our universe. The next time you see one, thank Nancy Grace Roman.