Nancy Grace Roman (1925–2018)
We have lost a giant of astronomy. Nancy Grace Roman, a pioneering scientist who developed the astronomy program at NASA and was long considered the “Mother of Hubble” for her role in launching the groundbreaking Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, died on the morning of Dec. 25 at age 93.
I was introduced to Nancy Grace in 2015 by a mutual friend, my former high school science teacher and longtime UMass Boston professor Arthur Eisenkraft. Based on everything he’d told me about Nancy Grace — that she was determined to go into astronomy at a time when, in her words, “a woman could not be an astronomer;” that she later started up and led NASA’s nascent astronomy program; and that she was a leading administrative driver on numerous space missions, most famously the Hubble Space Telescope — I was shocked that I hadn’t heard of her sooner. I’d been interested in the history of women in science — and astronomy in particular — for some time, and had done a lot of writing about Hubble Space Telescope advances as a cub science reporter early in my career. How had I never before come across her bio?
I reached out to Nancy Grace via email, and we agreed to meet the next time I was in the DC area, where she lived. Her story was fascinating. She began her career as an astronomer at the University of Chicago, where she’d obtained her PhD in 1949 despite a thesis advisor who originally wanted nothing to do with her — going so far as to pretend not to see her when they passed each other in the hall. This attitude, a refusal of certain male scientists to accept women “invading” the scientific domain, was not uncommon at the time. But Nancy Grace persisted, moving within a few years to the U.S. Naval Observatory in order to study radio astronomy.
Before long, in 1959, a golden opportunity came her way: She was offered the chance to develop and run a space astronomy program for NASA, which was only about a year old at the time. “The idea of coming in with an absolutely clean slate to set up a program that I thought was likely to influence astronomy for 50 years was just a challenge I couldn’t turn down,” she noted in a 1980 interview. The rest was history: She became NASA’s first female executive, a leader in the astronomy community, and a driving force behind numerous scientific projects, including the development of a space telescope that would give humanity its clearest pictures yet of the cosmos — iconic images that would not be hindered by perturbations in Earth’s atmosphere.
Nancy Grace didn’t know what to think when I gave her a Lego minifigure in her likeness at that first meeting. I hadn’t yet envisioned her as part of a larger project that would compete in the Lego Ideas contest, but I’d wanted to do something special for her as a way to let her know how much her work was appreciated. When I visited her home a year or so later, just before my Lego Women of NASA project highlighting five women in NASA history was set into motion, she considered the prototype of her vignette an amusing trinket for her living room china case. Meanwhile, I was delighted to find so much astronomy in her home: In addition to Hubble memorabilia, she had crocheted an especially lovely Milky Way bedspread featuring the various constellations.
I think she understood a lot better the potential of that trinket when an official Lego set featuring her minifigure went on sale around the globe last fall; knowing she wasn’t on social media, I occasionally sent her posts and replies from the public that spoke to how much people appreciated her contributions. I loved hearing stories of how friends in her church would come up to her to tell her about the various articles and media they’d seen about her.
Shortly after the launch of the Lego set, I invited Nancy Grace to come and help us celebrate at a big party in Boston. She was already quite frail at that point and had difficulty getting around, so she was hesitant to make the trip. But with our friend Arthur’s help, we convinced her to both attend the launch party and give a public talk at UMass Boston. The talk was well-attended, and at least one teenager drove several hours just to meet her hero. Later, at our Lego event, she gave a brief speech, in which she applauded the new offering for both its encouragement of girls and its focus on science learned through Hubble. “I think it’s important to inspire girls and let them know that they can go into science and other technical fields,” she said. “I ran into an awful lot of discouragement, and while I don’t think [girls are] quite as discouraged today, they still have to fight their way.” Nancy Grace proceeded to sign autographs for over an hour and mug for photos with dozens of fans. How wonderful to watch her getting such rock star treatment! The next morning, I saw her off at the airport as she made her way back home, a noticeable spring in her 92-year-old step.
Unfortunately, Nancy Grace was unwell a good chunk of this year; the last time I saw her, in August, she was recovering from a pretty significant setback earlier in the spring. Even so, she kept the latest science magazines and a laptop at her bed to keep up with any big astronomy news. I introduced her to my family, who had traveled to DC for a small ceremony: The prototype of our Lego set, Nancy Grace included, was being accepted as part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian. Nancy Grace was not well enough to attend, but she was in good spirits. Sadly, that was the last time we spoke.
It was an honor and a pleasure to get to know Nancy Grace Roman in her final years. I can only hope her Lego likeness will live on with children and the young at heart — and that her story will perhaps inspire others to follow their passions.