In the excitement of the holidays, it might have been easy to miss the death of a scientific powerhouse, astronomer Dr. Nancy Grace Roman. Roman was NASA’s first chief of astronomy and is credited with leading NASA’s “first successful astronomical mission” – the 1962 launch of a satellite named Orbiting Solar Observatory-1. She also played a key role in getting the Hubble Space Telescope off the ground, both literally and figuratively.
Roman was born in Nashville, Tennessee May 16, 1925. Her love of outer space, fostered by her mother, led her to start an astronomy club when she was only 11. She went on to study astronomy at Swarthmore College and get a PhD in the subject from the University of Chicago in 1949. She worked for the University of Chicago & Wisconsin’s Yerkes Observatory before joining the Naval Research Laboratory in 1955. When NASA formed a few years later, Roman was one of its first employees. She worked as NASA headquarters’ first chief of astronomy (and one of NASA’s first female executives) until retiring from NASA in 1979. In addition to overseeing numerous satellite and rocket programs, she was highly instrumental in making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality.
The Hubble Space Telescope was the first major telescope sent into space to collect data and pictures of our universe. Its design and launch was a complicated and very expensive endeavor and Roman worked hard to lobby for funding. Hubble didn’t launch until 1990, years after Roman had retired (although she did come back to NASA to help as a consultant) but without her early scientific “sales-pitching” it couldn’t have happened.
Roman was included in Lego’s “pioneering women of NASA” figurine set as well as receiving more “traditional” awards including NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award and the Women in Aerospace Lifetime. In addition to her “scientific” work, she worked with the American Association of University Women to advocate for female scientists.
Roman died December 25, 2018 at the age of 93. It is no stretch to say Dr. Roman’s contributions were truly “astronomical” and she will be sorely missed.