Contribution of Women to the field of Astrophysics and Astronomy

Photo By NASA

For most of its 25 years in space, the Hubble Space Telescope has been astounding people all around the world with its beautiful images. Its scientific instruments have revolutionized our understanding of the universe and its history. But this is not an article about the Hubble Space Telescope; rather someone we have to thank for clearing the pathway for its success, and many other contributions she has made to NASA and understanding of astronomy. If you have ever gazed in astonishment and curiosity at the miraculous and magnificent images that Hubble has produced, then you have Nancy Grace Roman to thank. She is called the “Mother of Hubble”. Dr. Nancy Grace Roman and her contributions to Astronomy, is the second part of our three-part series on the contributions of women in the field of Astrophysics and Astronomy.

Nancy Roman was born on May 16, 1925 in Nashville Tennessee at a time when very few women had jobs, and the ones that did, where “not supposed” to be in the field of science. The common assumption was that women grew up to marry, bear children, and become good housewives.  Nancy was an only child and always received support from her parents. Her father was a scientist with a degree in mathematics and physics, but Nancy actually credits her mother for her love of astronomy. During the day her mother would take her on walks, pointing out all the different life forms of plants and animals, and at night, teach her about the aurora borealis and the different constellations. Nancy’s love of the night skies and astronomy began to emerge when she was in the 5th grade, starting a backyard astronomy club with her neighborhood friends.  She also spent a lot of her young childhood in the Baltimore city library checking out books about astronomy. By the time Nancy reached high school, she exhausted her options reading all of them, and decided she wanted to be an astronomer. If that didn’t work out or she couldn’t find work, she would become a math and physics teacher.

Nancy didn’t always receive encouragement in her career choice. In fact, quite the contrary. For years she was told many times by different people that women aren’t scientists and don’t go to school to study astronomy or any science for that matter.  And despite her parent’s support, even her own mother had trepidation. In Nancy’s own words, “she offered subtle hints that she was not sure about my choice – you know, you don’t really know much about other subjects she would say”. In one case while in secondary school, Nancy had gone to her school guidance counselor to switch her fifth year of Latin for a second year of Algebra.  “The guidance counselor looked at me. My memory of, visions of her, I’m sure is exaggerated, but she seemed about ten feet tall, looked down her nose at me. ‘What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?’ which was about as obvious as you could get”. (NASA Headquarters Oral History Project, R. Wright)

Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy, is shown at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in approximately 1972.
Credit: NASA

After high school, Nancy decided that she wanted to attend Swarthmore College. The decision was largely based on the fact that it was close to home. She attended an all-girls high school and wanted to attend a co-ed College. Most important, the school had a good astronomy department. But even in higher education, Nancy and many other women at that time pursuing careers in the STEM fields encountered discouragement. In an interview by NASA Headquarters for their Oral History Project, Nancy recalls meeting with the Dean of Women to discuss her education and career path. “She was very opposed to women going into science or engineering, so opposed that if she couldn’t talk a girl out of it, she just never had anything more to do with her for the four years she was there”.  The advisor begrudgingly sent to her to the head of the Astronomy department who accepted her into the department but for a period of about six months went without speaking to her. “He didn’t want anything to do with me”. “There was a period in which he went for six months without speaking to me, even when I said hello to him in the hall, He didn’t want anything to do with me.” Ironically this is the same person who would later ask Nancy not to leave the University after she completed her thesis. It wasn’t until her junior year in college that Nancy received her first form of encouragement when her professor said: “I usually try to discourage women from going into science, but I think maybe you’ll make it.”

Nancy eventually graduated from Swarthmore with degree in Astronomy and minors in physics and mathematics and went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago and The Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay Wisconsin.  Nancy didn’t really encounter the same problems of discrimination as she did elsewhere and felt she was treated the same way as all the other students and eventually earned her Ph.D. The next few years would prove to be very exciting for Nancy and help launch her into becoming one of the most influential and successful women scientists and astronomers.

Nancy began working on mapping the galaxy by cataloguing and analyzing different stars, there velocities and stellar spectra and determining the different ages of each of them. The typical way astronomers study stars is to look at the light that they produce on the light spectrum to determine things like temperature, distance, brightness, and composition. What can’t be determined from that is any sloping or oblique motion. What Nancy found was that most of the stars in our galaxy move in a predominantly circular orbit around the center of the galaxy based on the amount of heavy elements heavier then hydrogen they contain.

Nancy Grace Roman via NASA

But a few move in more elliptical patterns, or in some rare cases, even the opposite direction. These exceptions are called high velocity stars (although a bit of any oxymoron since their velocities are a lot slower relative to ours) and contain fewer heavy elements. After observing and recording the data from a few stars, it initially looked like Nancy got the measurements wrong. But when she compared this data to other work that was being done in the same area, she found it to be correct. Her research also suggested that the galactic center set by the new galactic coordinate system was indeed wrong and the center of the galaxy was a mixture of thermal and non-thermal sources. Although Nancy had briefly published on this topic, she could not prove it at that time, because the person with whom she shared the same results would not let her publish his data. Just a few years later Nancy was proved correct and was eventually approached by one of the scientists from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory who said, “You know you were right”. Nancy simply laughed and said “Yes, I know.”

Although her thesis advisor did not want her to leave, Nancy was getting less at that time as a Ph.D. than what a data clerk would get who had a high school education. Even the head of the department, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (known for his developing what we now call The Chandrasekhar Limit: the maximum mass a star can be before becoming a white dwarf or neutron star and remain that way forever, or end its life in the form of a supernova and if large enough a black hole) who was an Indian American and surely faced discrimination himself, told Nancy that, “We don’t discriminate against women. We can just get them for less”. Needless to say, Nancy left The University of Chicago and in 1955, went to work at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) which would help lead to a career path that would change her life.

Nancy didn’t initially receive recognition for her work on high velocity star movements, but that’s not to say it went unnoticed. The director of a new observatory in Armenia did see her notes on the orbits of stars, was interested, and invited her to what at that time was the Soviet Union. Nancy was only 31 years old when she was approved for secret clearance and would become the first civilian to go to the Soviet Union during the Cold War to give a lecture on her work.

When she returned, she was invited to do a number of lectures in Astronomy and continued her work at the NRL for four years in the fields of radio astronomy. By this time Nancy was well known amongst her colleagues and often asked for assistance on a number of topics. She was eventually approached to help setup a program to study space astronomy for a new government funded organization that would change the course of her career. Before 1958 the United States operated it space program in a few different operations. They were collectively known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and would eventually be consolidated into a new agency called National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA. Although she loved doing research, it was too good of an offer to turn down, and in 1959 she became the very first Chief of Astronomy of Space Science at NASA Headquarters and the first woman to hold an executive position there.

In 1946, more than ten years before Nancy had accepted her new role as chief of astronomy, Astronomer Lyman Spitzer had an idea to launch a telescope into space so its images would be absent of the interference of earth’s atmosphere. He had begun trying to persuade the US government to develop this but faced years of rejection. It wasn’t until the formation of NASA and Nancy’s tenure there that his dream would come to fruition.

“If the aerospace companies were going to put a lot of money into designing a telescope, they might as well design one that made sense.”

During the next twenty years, Nancy would initiate the development of the ultraviolet explorer, plan for programs such as the Astronomy Rocket Program, and launch many satellites used for ultraviolet and x-ray technology for observing the sun. But her most influential and arguably successful work came in the development and eventual launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. Leaning on her background in astronomy, she took the most practical approach to the development of Hubble by gathering astronomers from all over the country and teaming them up with NASA engineers to develop a design. “If the aerospace companies were going to put a lot of money into designing a telescope, they might as well design one that made sense,” she said. Because of her passion and committed involvement to the eventual launch of Hubble, she is often referred to as the “Mother of Hubble”.  She was well respected amongst her colleagues both within NASA and the scientific community, and in 1962 was listed by Life magazine as one of the 100 Most Important young people. In 1969, she also received the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal awarded for unusually significant scientific contributions toward achievement of aeronautical or space exploration goals and an individual’s efforts that have resulted in a contribution of fundamental importance or have significantly enhanced the understanding of this field.

After a twenty-year run with NASA, Nancy retired and took a job in Maryland as a contractor with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She worked with them for several years until the contract ended. In 1990, the Hubble space telescope was launched into orbit and has been one of NASA’s most important and successful science missions. It has produced literally hundreds of thousands of images that have changed and revolutionized the way we see and observe the universe. It has unlocked some of the greatest mysteries in the fields of astronomy and physics and has turned hypothesis into certainties. It has allowed us to see deeper and further into the universe than ever before. The photos the Hubble telescope produce are breathtaking and simply humbling.

At a time when men dominated the field of astronomy, Nancy Grace Roman proved that women are just as capable. She is an inspiration to students today and succeeded in creating an undisputed successful scientific career leaving a lasting impact in the field of astronomy. We have Nancy to thank for many of the instrumental efforts in making the Hubble telescope possible. Today Nancy remains active giving lectures and teaching across the country and is an advocate for women in science. In 2011, NASA established the Nancy Grace Roman Technology Fellowship in Astrophysics, designed to foster technologies that advance scientific investigations in the origin and physics of the universe and future exoplanet exploration. Nancy also has an asteroid named in her honor and, in 2017, the Lego Company created a Lego set called “Women of NASA” which included a mini figurine of her.

I will leave you with Nancy’s own words when asked what advice you would give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you.  “My career was quite unusual so my main advice to someone interested in a career similar to my own is to remain open to change and new opportunities. I like to tell students that the jobs I took after my Ph.D. we’re not in existence only a few years before. New opportunities can open up for you in this ever-changing field.”

References

  1. Interview of Nancy G. Roman by David DeVorkin on 1980 August 19, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA,
    www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4846>
  2. NASA Headquarters Oral History Project Edited Oral
    History Transcript, Nancy Grace Roman. Interviewed by Rebecca Wright; Chevy Chase, Maryland September 15, 2000. https://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/NASA_HQ/Herstory/RomanNG/RomanNG_9-15-00.htm
  3. NASA Goddard. NASA’s First Chief Astronomer, the Mother of Hubble. February 11, 2018. [Video File]. Retrieved from
    https://youtu.be/m5fC3FIUngk
  4. https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/people/225/nancy-roman/
  5. https://women.nasa.gov/nancy-grace-roman-2/
  6. https://shop.lego.com/en-US/Women-of-NASA-21312
  7. https://www.cnet.com/news/lego-nasa-women-nancy-grace-roman-92-birthday/

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