Nancy Grace Roman – The ‘Mother’ of the Hubble Space Telescope

One of the reasons I love teaching is to assure young women that they can be scientists!

When Nancy was a young girl, growing up in Nashville Tennessee, she was told repeatedly: “Woman are not supposed to be scientists, and that’s that”. She didn’t listen. In the fifth grade, she organized her friends into an astronomy club which met once a week during the summer to learn about constellations. By the seventh grade, she devoured every single astronomy book in the city library. As she learned about the periodicity of the Earth’s orbit, her own intellectual trajectory was finding its gravitational pull. “I am going to be an astronomer” she thought to herself and if not, then teaching high school math and physics would be a safe and, in line with her socio-political moment, a “gender appropriate” Plan B.

Before liftoff she was already being restrained by the fetters of gendered viewpoints. Her guidance counselor expressed discontent at the idea of Nancy enrolling in mathematics instead of Latin. “What lady would do such a thing”. Nancy did.

At Swarthmore college, the head of the physics department, who recognized Nancy’s ‘spark,’ encouraged her: “I usually try to dissuade girls from majoring in physics but I think maybe you will make it”. Nancy not only ‘made’ it but also went on to study astronomy as a post doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. It was during her time as a post graduate fellow that she made an exciting discovery.

Among bright stars somewhat similar to the Sun, some contained a larger number of heavy elements (heavier than hydrogen) than others. Furthermore, stars with even heavier elements orbited the galactic center in nearly circular orbits and stayed near the plane of the Milky Way, while stars with fewer heavy elements circled the galactic core in slightly more elliptical orbits and strayed farther from the galactic plane. While it had been known for some time that a small number of stars with few heavy elements moved in very eccentric orbits, no one had ascertained that normal stars also demonstrate subtle differences.

This discovery provided the first clue to the evolution of the Milky Way. Stars make all elements heavier than hydrogen, helium and lithium. When the stars get old, they spew these heavy elements into interstellar space, where they are incorporated into the process of star-birth. Thus, stars with more heavy elements are younger (with circular orbits in the galactic plane), while the stars with fewer heavy elements are older and have galactic orbits that become more random with time.

Nancy’s work on bright stars sparked her interest in galactic structure and galactic distribution of stars with various abundances. She discovered that it was easier to estimate the heavier element abundances by the colors of stars rather than by studying their spectra. However, she still trusted spectra to highlight possible peculiarities in the stars. Therefore, she embarked on a program of measuring the spectra and colors of stars near the galactic plane, and at a distance away from the plane, to learn how the distribution of weak- and strong- lines varied with galactic latitude.

During the course of this work, she observed a star that, according to a catalog, should look like the Sun. However, the spectrum did not look at all like the Sun’s, so she thought she had observed the wrong star. (Stars look pretty much alike, even through a telescope). When it looked the same the next night, she then observed it with a different spectrograph. After analyzing the spectra, she published a two-page note about the star (BD +67 922 now known as AG Draconis) in the Astophysical Journal and continued with her stellar abundance project. She had never anticipated how those observations were about to change her life.

In the early 1950’s, women had little to no chance of acquiring tenure in a university’s astronomy research department. So when professor Gerard Kuiper alerted Nancy about an opening in radio astronomy at the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), she seized the opportunity. Radio astronomy was new in the United States of America, and Nancy thought it had much to contribute to our understanding of the structure of the Milky Way. She was correct, but it was far too early.

Back then, a radio astronomer was expected to build his or her own instruments, and she did not want to start over as an electronic engineer. Moreover, the technology was not up to the task as yet. Despite such deficiencies in her technological landscape, Nancy mapped the sky (at 67cm) and participated in improving the value of the distance to the Moon using radar. By comparing her measurements of the galactic center region with those of a colleague at a shorter wavelength, she determined that Sag A, which was thought to be the galactic center was actually a composite source.

After she had been at the NRL for a year, she was invited to the dedication of an observatory in Armenia. This is because her two-page note on that strange star, observed several years ago, sent shockwaves across the globe.

When NASA was formed in 1958, many NRL scientists were recruited to form the nascent Goddard Space Flight Center. At NASA Headquarters, the director of Geophysics and Astronomy, Jack Clark, was also from NRL. The only question remained: Did Nancy Roman want to leave her research position?

In 1959, NASA received its answer as Mrs. Roman initiated a program that eventually included 20 satellites, many sounding rockets and an extensive program of ground-based research and technological development necessary to support space observation.

From being the first woman as part of the Goddard Space Flight Center, she went on to serve as the Chief of the Astronomy and Relativity Programs in the NASA Office of Space Science for two decades! She was responsible for developing programs and organizing scientific participation, as well as insuring the scientific integrity of the programs and maximizing budgetary and engineering constraints. The salient mission she spearheaded was the Hubble Space Telescope (the early planning and development structure).

The ‘Mother’ of the Hubble Telescope, as she came to be known, was offered retirement in 1979. She refused and continued to work as a consultant with the government associated with the Hubble Telescope. When the contractor changed, she was offered retirement again. She refused. She secured a job at the Astronomical data center and eventually became the director. In 1997, she was offered retirement. She reluctantly accepted.

Nancy Grace Roman read astronomy for the Blind and Dyslexic. She worked with school children in Washington DC; she worked with “Journey to the Universe” – a program that sent scientists and engineers to underserved areas of the US to work with schools; she lectures publicly to spread awareness about the need for a greater understanding of astronomy within the public. Her life is her message: to observe the universe and democratize observations by cultivating a curiosity within both students and adults in the wonder of the celestial sphere and beyond.

 

DeVorkin, D. (2015, May 20). Nancy G. Roman. Retrieved March 22, 2017, from https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4846

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