It is an image to inspire almost primordial awe, taken when a space telescope with a rocky past pointed itself towards a black expanse of seemingly empty space and slowly accumulated flecks of light over the course of a million seconds. Here on Earth, we can see nothing in that black, but to the Hubble Space Telescope, there awaited a symphony of creation to behold, a field of galaxies from the early universe crowding the image like so many paramecia in a petri dish. In that one picture there are hundreds of cousins to our Milky Way stuffed into an arc of sky less than a tenth the diameter of our moon.

nancy roman hubble image

Hubble Deep Field (photo credit: NASA, ESA, N. Pirzkal (STScI/ESA) and the HUDF Team (STScI))

It’s an image that gave us our first true visual sense of our small if comfortable place in the universe, and yet it is but one of a million such that have remade the face of astronomy since Hubble became truly and completely operational in 1993. And without Nancy Roman (born 1925) it might never have happened.

“The Mother of the Hubble Space Telescope” or simply “Old Mother Hubble”, Roman was a keystone figure in the history of NASA. That organization’s first female executive, and its first ever Chief of Astronomy, she was the person responsible for Getting Science Done in an era dominated by the distracting heroics of the astronaut program. While the media focused on the drama of the Mercury missions and the lunar landing, it was Roman who ground away at the task of determining what science astronomers most wanted to do, and finding ways to harness the power of NASA to accomplish those projects.

It was a hard, important job, with many trailbreaking successes to celebrate, and it did not end happily.

nancy roman comic

The beginnings of Roman’s astronomical career, however, were thoroughly lovely. Her father was a geophysicist who loved answering her questions about the world around her, and at the age of eleven she organized her school friends into a miniature astronomical society propelled by Roman’s voracious appetite for astronomical information. She graduated high school in three years and got a position as a research associate at the legendary Yerkes Observatory after graduating from the University of Chicago.

As interesting as her research there was, however, there was no way to turn her position into a tenured one, so she transferred to the Naval Research Laboratory in 1955 where, because the scientists there had had a bad experience with the last woman scientist they had hired, Roman was virtually ignored, given no project to work on and no real equipment to do it with.

During her years as a researcher she produced several note-worthy discoveries, including the fact that not all stars of the same composition are of the same age, and how star velocity varies according to elemental composition, but the great break in Roman’s life came with Sputnik and the subsequent creation of NASA in 1958. The new agency needed somebody to coordinate and define its purely scientific programs, and one of Roman’s NRL colleagues approached her with an offer to become NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy.

It sounds like a no-brainer – who in their right mind wouldn’t want to become the first Chief of Astronomy at NASA? But it was a decision of weighty portent, for managing NASA’s science program would mean giving up her own research, perhaps forever. As NRL, however, wasn’t precisely falling over itself to support her research goals, she chose NASA and a path that would lead her to the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Roman’s job at NASA was, in essence, to communicate with the astronomical community about what projects would be the most useful to do scientifically, evaluate their proposals in the light of her own astronomical expertise and knowledge of NASA’s capacities, and organize funding and staff for the projects she felt to be worthwhile. On her watch NASA launched a small fleet of satellites for observing solar phenomena, measuring relativistic red shift, recording planetary phenomena, and measuring ultraviolet astronomical events that were inaccessible to ground observatories because of Earth’s atmospheric layer.

She was a frank and cautious administrator, known for bluntly denying projects that she felt carried too much risk while not providing enough scientific pay-off, and her honesty earned her detractors among the astronomical community. It was a difficult position, caught between her former scientist colleagues who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand why she didn’t just approve everything they wanted, and her new employers at NASA who, especially after the lunar landing, were working with ever tighter budgets thanks to a combative Congress and an indifferent nation.

Roman’s satellite fleet was a great step into making outer space humanity’s new platform for scientific inquiry, but its crown jewel would take decades to come to fruition. What we now know as the Hubble Space Telescope was intellectually born as far back as 1946, when Lyman Spitzer wrote a paper on the need for space-based telescopes if astronomy was to solve its deepest riddles. Observatories on the ground labor under a myriad of handicaps. Our atmosphere buffets incoming light, nudging it hither and thither so that what entered as clear images of stars become, by the time they reach a telescope, hazy blurs whose mysteries can only be tenuously grasped by experts.  And that’s just what happens to visible light. Ultraviolet rays are blocked by the ozone layer, and with them all the information they carry about the stars that produced them.  Water vapor and carbon dioxide, meanwhile, absorb infrared radiation which contains crucial data about the expansion of the universe.

On Earth, the rich buffet of electromagnetic wavelengths offered up by stellar and cosmic processes is reduced to a scattered snack plate of varying delectability. But a space telescope could feast upon it all, giving answers about how stars form and die, how galaxies are made, what the early universe was like, and what the ultimate fate of it will be, that we have sought since our origins as an intellectually seeking species.

Spitzer made a strong case, but it was up to Roman to propound the idea to astronomers and engineers. In spite of its advantages, it was not an easy sell. Ground based astronomers saw a space telescope as competition, and a potential drain on their funding, and resisted Roman’s overtures, while engineers doubted the feasibility of such a delicate piece of equipment weathering the launch process and being controllable in space. How would you remotely aim it accurately, and keep it focused on a single point while it orbits the Earth? How would you store the images? How would you get those images back to Earth?

Roman, Spitzer, and a small cadre of other true space telescope believers used all their powers of influence and slowly pushed the astronomical community into some semblance of agreement about the general desirability of an orbiting optical telescope. Which brought a whole new problem – now that the astronomers were down with the idea of a space telescope, they ALL had ideas about what it should be like, and once again it was Nancy Roman who had to stand in the crossfire and be the adult making tough decisions that bruised egos.

Negotiating between those who wanted giant optical telescopes and those who wanted a Swiss Army telescope bristling with lots of specialized (and often contradictory) pieces of measuring equipment, between NASA administrators who imposed budgetary restrictions that nearly killed the project and a Congress who couldn’t understand why they should fund a space telescope when they just built a large array of radio telescopes on the ground at great expense, Roman kept the project alive long enough to build a dedicated team of researchers, engineers, lobbyists, and administrators who overcame the technical challenges of space-based astronomy (including the development of CCD technology that became the basis of the digital revolution in photography) and placed tactical pressure on government to support further planning and design throughout the Sixties and early Seventies.

And that’s when the story goes sadways. Roman had been NASA’s reigning advocate of the power of space astronomy for a decade and a half, had made its first satellites a reality, and had thrown together support and funding for the Hubble Space Telescope, but the mid Seventies saw her pushed increasingly from the source of the action. In 1974 a reorganization of NASA placed her one step lower in the administrative hierarchy, with a new overseer who parceled the work she used to do out to other people, even to people who technically ranked below her.  Given less to do, and finding little support from the astronomical community that still rankled from her frank approach to project rejection, she retired from her post in 1980.

After NASA she worked as a consultant into her seventies, watching from the sidelines as Hubble labored its way through final funding and construction, launched to acclaim, produced its first images in 1990 that indicated a massive problem with spherical aberration that rendered it all but useless, and then emerged from the ashes after a repair mission in 1993 to produce the images that entranced and inspired a generation.  And it’s still up there, measuring where our universe came from and where it is going, making tangibly real to elementary school students and laymen the scale and objects of the cosmos.

Roman could be forgiven if she were bitter about missing out on the culmination of her efforts, or about what she suffered as a woman administrator in a man’s environment. But, somewhat superhumanly, she isn’t. Here’s what [email protected] head Mamta Patel Nagaraja had to say about her opportunity to talk with Nancy Roman:

I’ve interviewed Nancy Roman myself informally in her apartment in Friendship Heights. It was an incredible experience – she was gracious to invite me over, prepare tea and biscuits for me, and just talk. Like I was as important as she was to the world of women in STEM. It was immediately apparent to me that she understood what it meant to be a role model and that something as small as an hour chat was enough to inspire a woman to continue in the world of engineering and science. I was so impressed with her poise and wisdom. I recall when I expressed frustration that we were STILL talking about women in STEM from when I first heard it as a teenager, she calmly said “Mamta, change takes time. Generations.” That’s when it clicked for me – this has been and will continue to be something we just have to invest in for the better of the future. Things are much better than they used to be so clearly change has happened but we just aren’t there yet.

Here’s hoping equity takes a bit less than generations to happen, and that when it does it will be because of a new vanguard of kids who take a look at a picture containing a thousand galaxies and whose curiosity leads them to answer the question “Who made that possible?” and find inspiration for themselves there.

FURTHER READING: If you want to know about the nightmare of getting NASA projects approved, funded, and built in the 1960s through 1980s, Robert Zimmerman’s The Universe in a Mirror (2008) tells the tale with merciless clarity as he unravels the creation of the Hubble Telescope, what went wrong, and the heroes behind its repair and continued operation. He has a number of pages there dedicated to Roman’s life and work, as well as to those of a half dozen other people who gave a decade of their best years to Hubble only to be shoved aside and eventually forgotten.

And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Year One and Year Two.