Nancy Grace Roman stands in front of a scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope
Nancy Grace Roman stands in front of a scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

A future NASA powerhouse space telescope has been named after the agency’s first chief of astronomy, Dr. Nancy Grace Roman. Roman (1925–2018) was also the first woman to be a NASA executive and is widely considered the “Mother of the Hubble Space Telescope” for her leadership in making the observatory a reality. NASA officials announced the name on 20 May.

“I was told from the beginning that women could not be scientists.”

Roman was a pioneer in astronomy, earning her doctorate and conducting early research to map the Milky Way galaxy in the 1950s. Her research into the chemical compositions and motions of stars was considered one of the 100 most important astrophysical research papers in 100 years.

“I certainly did not receive any encouragement,” Roman said in a 2018 interview. “I was told from the beginning that women could not be scientists.”

She joined NASA in the agency’s infancy, created its space astronomy program, and then led it for 2 decades. Roman was the driving force in getting Hubble and many other missions approved by the U.S. Congress.

“I think that it’s really important to recognize that large NASA missions take more than being a good scientist or take more than being a good engineer,” Julie McEnery said during the announcement. “You have to have people like Nancy Grace Roman, who really understood the details of all of those things and could bring them together.” McEnery is a deputy project scientist for the Roman Telescope at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Nancy Grace Roman’s LEGO set
Nancy Grace Roman and her legacy as the “Mother of Hubble” were featured in the LEGO Women of NASA set. Credit: Kimberly M. S. Cartier

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, commented on Twitter, “I am so thrilled about this news. Nancy Roman, the mother of the Hubble Space Telescope, deserved to hear it while she was alive, but I am glad that her name will forever be imprinted on a space telescope.”

“Not gonna lie, teared up a little over here,” Jessie Christiansen, a research scientist at NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, tweeted. “So glad to see her get this recognition.”

The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, formerly the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), has faced funding challenges for years but was approved for development and launch in 2016. The Roman Telescope will be the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope and have the same sensitivity but will have a field of view 100 times larger. It’s scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s and will observe the structure and expansion of the universe, reveal the first billion years of cosmic history, and hunt for and image extrasolar planets.

Roman “really advocated putting astronomy instruments in space,” said Roman Telescope astrophysicist Elisa Quintana during the announcement. “It’s because of her and people like her that we have missions like WFIRST.”

“NASA doesn’t just build missions for science that we know about today,” Quintana said. “You really have to be a visionary like Nancy Grace Roman to develop instruments that are going to let us explore and really try to understand the unknown mysteries in our universe.”

You can learn more about Nancy Roman’s legacy from the woman herself in one of her last recorded interviews (here) and in the video below.

YouTube video

—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer


Cartier, K. M. S. (2020), New space telescope named for Nancy Roman, astronomy pioneer, Eos, 101, Published on 21 May 2020.

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