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Nancy Grace Roman: The Mother of Hubble

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. This week, you're going to read about NASA's first female executive – Nancy Grace Roman.


Nancy Grace Roman was born in 1925 in Nashville, Tennessee. Because of her father's work, she spent her childhood moving around the country. When Nancy was only 11 years old, she organised an astronomy school club with her friends, and a year later, she was certain she would dedicate the rest of her life to studying space. Nancy realized that as a woman, it would mean constantly going against sexist teachers, professors, or higher-ups, but she was determined to live her dream.

Nancy enrolled in Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. The dean and professor were initially discouraging her from studying astronomy, but she ended up getting a baccalaureate degree and went on to further her knowledge at the University of Chicago. She got her PhD in astronomy in 1949 and later began working at Yerkes Observatory, which was managed by the university. First, she worked as a research associate, then instructor, and finally as an assistant professor. The research papers she produced are to this day of high importance in the astronomic community, but she felt that staying in academia would stunt her career, so she left to work as a radio astronomer at the Naval Research Laboratory. She worked on mapping our galaxy, determining the Moon's distance, and calculating the mass of the Earth.

In 1959, Nancy applied for work at NASA, interested in creating a program for space astronomy. She got accepted, becoming their first female executive. Back then, ground astronomy was the norm and not enough astronomers were interested in observing from space. She traveled around the country, informing astronomy departments of NASA's plans regarding space astronomy and getting them interested in it, as well as gathering opinions of what astronomers think NASA should focus on more. She was the one to establish NASA as the coordinating agency for astronomy. Nancy was also in charge of the budget for different missions, accepting or rejecting which projects would be funded.

Having worked on various smaller space-based telescopes, Nancy realized the need for a larger one and was using her position to make every party involved approve of the project – the Hubble Space Telescope, (then called the Large Space Telescope). With her knowledge of both science and politics, she acted as the link between astronomers and Congress. She was present in every decision made about the telescope, the most significant being the installation of image sensors called charge-coupled devices, which were then considered a risk but soon after that became the standard for sensors.

In 1979, Nancy retired from NASA to care for her elderly mother, but returned to work in the Goddard Space Flight Center, becoming its director and retiring again in 1997. She then spent her time teaching high school students and recording audio textbooks for the visually impaired, dying in 2018.

Nancy Grace Roman was one of the most contributing figures in astronomy and NASA specifically, successfully fulfilling her dream regardless of continuous discouragement. Knowing the hardships of being a woman in STEM, she spent her life encouraging girls and women to aim for the stars.






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