Home / Science / "Mother of Hubble" Nancy Grace Roman led the way for women in astronomy

"Mother of Hubble" Nancy Grace Roman led the way for women in astronomy

At a time when men dominated the field of astronomy, Nancy Grace Roman stepped up to become "the mother of Hubble."

Roman was the first chief of astronomy in the Space Science Office at NASA Headquarters and the first woman to hold a senior position at the space agency. In her role, she successfully led a number of astronomy-based projects, including what would later become the Hubble Space Telescope.

"The idea of ​​Hubble was something that had belonged to the astronomical community for generations, but it was not," said Roman in a video released by NASA in February. "Astronomers really wanted a big telescope over the atmosphere." [The Hubble Space Telescope: A 25th Anniversary Photo Celebration]

In the video, Roman explains how she helped bring light to Hubble, and she talks about the ubiquitous bias against female scientists she had to overcome on the way.

Nancy Grace Roman was born on May 1

6, 1925 in Nashville, Tennessee. She was the only child of Georgia Frances (Smith) and Irwin Roman. Her father had a degree in physics and mathematics, and his work in geophysics meant that he frequently moved in Nancy's early years.

But it is her mother who makes Roman for her interest in astronomy. In a fascinating 1980 oral interview with the American Institute of Physics, Roman said that if the family lived in Michigan, their mother would take them out at night and show her the constellations and the Northern Lights, as well as plants and animals [196592002] The family lived two Years in Reno, Nevada, when the novel was still young. The second summer, when she was there, she started an astronomy club with the girls in the neighborhood when she was about 11 years old.

In her early high school years, Roman decided despite the long time to go to astronomy education would require it. She decided that if it did not work as a career, she could teach physics and math to high school students.

"I'm not sure what age it was, but I remember it was a conscious decision on my part," said Roman in the interview.

While her parents were both supportive, she did not receive much encouragement from the outside.

"I was told from the beginning that a woman could not be an astronomer," she said in the NASA video [196592002] When she asked for permission from her high school advisor, a second year of algebra instead of a fifth year To take Latin, the answer was indeed devastating.

"She looked at my nose and grinned," What kind of lady would take math instead of latin? [Roman] [Women in Space: A Gallery of Firsts]

In 1946, Roman received her bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College, which she had selected because she had a decent astronomy department at the time, and Swarthmore received her first encouragement in astronomy as the leader The Physics Department told her that he usually tried to convince women to go to physics, "but I think maybe you can," he said.

Roman went on to do his PhD at the University of Chicago. But her graduate advisor was not very supportive.

"There was a time when he did not talk to me for six months, even though I greeted him in the hall," Roman said in the video. "He did not want anything

In the verbal interview, she said that this could have been part of the reason why the department urged her to leave without graduating, and she recommended college for an apprenticeship in Vassar i n New York

Ironically, the same professor, after graduating in 1949, did not want her to leave. Roman stayed at the University of Chicago and worked at his Yerkes Observatory before becoming a lecturer and then an assistant professor. Despite these successes, she did not believe that she would be offered a permanent job.

"Right or wrong, I did not think that as a woman I would have a chance of tenure," said Roman in her lecture interview. "I just did not think I had a chance, I may be wrong, but I do not think so."

She moved to the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) for several years where she studied radio astronomy. Then, in 1959, a lecture by chemist Harold Urey sparked her interest, resulting in a conversation that would change her career.

The United States consolidated its space operations in October 1958 and replaced the National Committee for Aeronautics with a new agency called NASA

After the Urey conversation, Roman was approached by a colleague who had once been in the NRL but was now with the newborn NASA. He asked her if she knew someone who would set up NASA's space astronomy program.

"The idea of ​​creating a program with an absolutely clean plan that I believed would affect astronomy for 50 years was just a challenge I could not refuse," said Roman in the interview.

In 1959, Roman became the first head of astronomy in the Space Science Office at NASA Headquarters and the first woman to hold a senior position at NASA

Paradoxically, despite her many years of experience and international renown, she became a PhD student set. She said that this was due to the fact that her previous salary was so low that the civil service would not recognize her work as work experience at that time.

Although Roman was an astronomer in a crowd, Roman said that she had no problems with her NASA colleagues

"I was very readily accepted as a scientist in my job," she said in the video. "The men were very cooperative and I felt that the men treated me as one of the teams without any problem."

In the years she spent at NASA, Roman was involved in several projects. One of them was known as the Space Telescope, a massive instrument that was proposed to circle the earth and capture data without interference from the planet's atmosphere.

The astronomer Lyman Spitzer developed the idea of ​​an optical space telescope in 1946. not least because of the costs and the technological challenges.

Finally, Roman became aware of the idea of ​​the space telescope. She used a hands-on approach to bring the project together.

"If the aerospace companies invested a lot of money in the construction of a telescope, they could also design one that makes sense," she said in the video. 19659002] In 1960, Roman brought together astronomers from across the country who represented the interests of the astronomical community. She teamed them up with NASA engineers and had the two groups develop a design for an instrument that could collect the data desired by the scientific community.

Roman and her colleagues met several times to discuss the Large Space Telescope. As other programs, such as Gemini, Apollo and Mariner, began to generate a wealth of space technology data, Roman became a strong proponent of NASA for what would later become the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble started in April 1990 and continues to make important observations and discoveries.

"It made it possible to set up early telescopes [into space] to learn what had to be learned," science historian Bob Zimmerman told Space.com in 2009. "As soon as this technology began to mature, it pushed for design work. Her hard nose helped build the telescope. " [Hubble in Pictures: Astronomers’ Top Picks (Photos)]

The novel retired from NASA in 1969 even though she worked as a contractor for many years at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland

But retirement has not stopped her from encouraging other women to keep going Journey she started so many years ago. On the occasion of Roman's 90th birthday in 2015, NASA said she continued to speak "eloquently and intelligently with a passion to encourage young women to pursue a career in science and technology."

"I'm happy that women can get senior jobs now," Roman said in the video. "You are not as discouraged as me."

There are still two things she would like to improve. One is the question of salaries: according to the Wall Street Journal, female astronomers and physicists earn only 85 percent more than their male counterparts.

The other problem is the percentage of women in this area. Although changes in attitude over time have made it easier for women to get higher offices in astronomy today than they did in Romans, she said that there are still not many high-level women.

In an earlier interview, as reported by NASA, Roman gave some advice to women who want to get into astronomy and work for the space agency.

"My career has been quite unusual, so my main advice to someone interested in a similar career is open to change and new opportunities," said Roman. "I'd like to tell students that the jobs I got after completing my PhD only existed a few years ago, and new opportunities can open up for you in this ever-changing field."

Follow Nola Taylor Redd at @NolaTRedd Facebook or Google+ . Follow us on @Spacedotcom Facebook or Google+ . Originally published on Space.com .

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