Nancy Grace Roman, PhD’49, didn’t get tenure. She changed the course of astronomy instead.
“I have no soft spot for the University of Chicago,” says Nancy Grace Roman, PhD’49. While her graduate work was educationally and scientifically fruitful, her faculty years afterward were marred by discrimination. The unfair treatment she received as a woman academic is a key element in Roman’s story, one that led her to a fledgling six-month-old NASA as its first chief of astronomy, where she arguably changed the face of space exploration.
“How did you get interested in astronomy?” ask countless interviewers, curious why she gravitated to a field women were actively discouraged from pursuing when she was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s. Roman, age 92, responds that she has no idea. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, her family moved frequently. One early memory was of living in Nevada and organizing an astronomy club between fifth and sixth grades for her friends to study constellations in Reno’s pitch-black night skies, implying a previously sparked interest.
When Roman was a girl, her mother, Georgia, took her to see the Northern Lights and constellations. Later, when they lived together before Georgia’s death in 1992, Roman wondered aloud whether those outings inspired her enthusiasm for space. “My mother was sort of shocked, because she had no science interest at all,” says Roman during an interview at her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in March. Georgia had been a music teacher. And—as she reminded Roman during that talk—had also shown her trees and flowers and birds. “Those didn’t stick,” says Roman.
She credits her geophysicist father, Irwin, with early exposure to science at home. “He taught me mental arithmetic by playing games with me,” she says. He also introduced her to scientific concepts and skills such as woodworking and household mechanics. “He said that I could not leave for college without knowing how to rewire a lamp.”
During the Great Depression, Irwin worked where he could—for an oil company, a university, and eventually the civil service—requiring the family to move frequently. By seventh grade Roman had relocated to Baltimore. After reading every astronomy book in the Baltimore library, she made up her mind to become an astronomer, knowing it would take another 12 years of school. She figured if she couldn’t “cut it,” she could teach math or physics.
Roman attended Swarthmore for three reasons: it had a good astronomy department, it was close to Baltimore, and it was coed. Goucher College was a women’s school at the time, and Johns Hopkins admitted women only to their night classes. (Although she wanted a change, Roman’s attendance at an all-female high school may have contributed to her later success. “Studies show that a statistically significant number of female leaders, regardless of arena, often come from women’s schools,” says physics department chair Young-Kee Kim, “because they can exercise their leadership skills.” See “Strength in Numbers.”)
Many coed universities from the late 1800s through about 1960 had a dean of women, an administrator in charge of female student affairs, who oversaw women students’ lives, from their academic choices to their social behavior. (Two universities are commonly cited as the first to employ deans of women—Swarthmore and the University of Chicago.)
According to Roman, Swarthmore’s dean of women during her undergraduate years encouraged women to pursue what she deemed female-appropriate fields. “If you insisted on majoring in science or engineering, she wouldn’t have anything more to do with you,” says Roman. “So she sent me to [the head of the astronomy department] Peter van de Kamp.”
He too was less than encouraging, though Roman doesn’t know if the treatment was gender based, as few men were starting college during World War II. Van de Kamp, who studied astrometry—the precise measurement of positions, motions, and magnitudes of stars—told Roman that he was using material collected by his predecessors 50 years ago and collecting material to be used by his successors 50 years in the future. “He was trying to discourage me, trying to tell me this is a slow study, that you’re not going to see the results,” she says. But Roman didn’t realize his intent until many years later, and so she persevered.
Joining the University of Chicago and Yerkes Observatory in 1946 for her doctorate, Roman finally felt accepted and a part of the student body—treated like everybody else. She told a NASA historian in 2000 that there were always at least two women students, one of whom arrived almost the same day she did and with whom she remained great friends.
She had difficulties with her thesis adviser, who would go six months without speaking to her, but it wasn’t because she was a woman, says Roman. “He was just moody.” She found adviser-level support from visiting professors, who helped her research continue forward.
Roman’s thesis project centered on the Ursa Major cluster—the central part of the Big Dipper, itself part of Ursa Major, the great bear. Star clusters are formed in relatively compact areas of dense gas and dust clouds, and as clusters age, the stars have different velocities, Roman explains. “They tend to expand. Like water evaporates into air, stars evaporate into space.” So stars born of the same cluster can be found all over the sky. Her project involved looking for stars that were born with the stars in the Big Dipper, using information in existing catalogs.
“I could tell how stars were moving now and could reverse that motion, taking them back to the Dipper at about the right time,” says Roman. She found more than 200 stars that had been born in the Ursa Major cluster.
After earning her doctorate, Roman stayed on as a postdoc, instructor, and then assistant professor—the first woman on UChicago’s astronomy faculty. She taught formally and informally while conducting research. During this period she studied differences in stars bright enough to see with the naked eye. She discovered that the compositions varied and that the variance correlated with differences in the stars’ velocities, directions, and, to some extent, location in the galaxy. Roman is especially proud of that work because it was the beginning of an era of understanding the structure of the Milky Way.
The problem, she says, was that she was making such a low salary that her parents had to help her financially. When she left UChicago and joined the government, she was hired as a freshly graduated PhD despite having six years of experience and an international reputation. “My salary was so low,” she says, “that they didn’t recognize it as professional experience.”
Roman estimates she was making no more than 60 percent of what her male colleagues earned, based on salaries offered for comparable positions at peer institutions, invariably filled by men. The only woman faculty member in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at that time, Roman had no other women’s salaries to compare with her own.
When she brought her concerns to the department chair, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the Indian-born astrophysicist who went on to win a Nobel Prize, he told her, “We don’t discriminate against women. We can just get them for less.”
“I would have thought he’d understand discrimination,” says Roman.
Peter Vandervoort, AB’54, SB’55, SM’56, PhD’60, astronomy and astrophysics professor emeritus, de facto departmental historian, and Chandrasekhar mentee, confirms that Chandra, as many called him, did in fact experience his fair share of discrimination.
After joining the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Yerkes Observatory (where the department resided) in 1937, Chandra was invited by University physicists to give a colloquium on campus. Physics department chair Henry Gale refused. “He did not want this black scientist from India to lecture in his department,” wrote Chandra’s wife, Lalitha, after his death. University president Robert Maynard Hutchins drafted a one-sentence response: “Mr. Chandrasekhar shall give his lectures.”
“Hutchins said his appointment was a move toward diversity,” says Vandervoort. Yet gender diversity, when Roman arrived more than a decade later, was still lacking.
In addition to the salary discrepancy, Roman felt certain that she would never earn tenure at the University of Chicago. She knew of no women in the Physical Sciences Division with tenure. She was aware of Maria Goeppert-Mayer’s work in the physics department, who had been subject to the University’s antinepotism rule, common among universities at the time, which precluded family members from working in the same department. These rules often led to discrimination against married professional women, as the husband’s appointment was nearly always given priority. Goeppert-Mayer’s husband had a tenured appointment, so the University found creative ways to offer her other types of resources and standing. She conducted her Nobel Prize–winning research at UChicago—as a volunteer.
Much has changed at the University since then. In 2015 an outside consultant was hired to analyze gender pay inequality for faculty, says dean of the Physical Sciences Division Edward “Rocky” Kolb. He notes that in the analysis, “comparisons were difficult, but I was pleased that there was no disparity” in the PSD, which now employs 13 percent tenured or tenure-track women faculty—a number he thinks is still far too low. “I can’t solve society’s problems because society won’t listen to me,” jokes Kolb. “But one thing I can do is work as hard as I can to increase representation of women on the tenure-track faculty.”
Vandervoort, who met Roman at Yerkes when he was an undergraduate, can’t say whether she would have eventually received tenure. But he’s certain she should have, citing an “impressive list of publications” and the respect she earned in the international astronomy community. One of Roman’s publications from 1950 is a key paper “in building up the standard model of the dynamical and chemical evolution of the Milky Way,” says Vandervoort.
Her work, then and now, has been recognized as groundbreaking—the beginning of what surely would have been an influential career in academia. But while she made pivotal discoveries at UChicago, Vandervoort says that she strikes him as not the type to wait around. She is, he says, “a person who can recognize opportunities.”
Sure enough, when an astronomer in the department—Gerard Kuiper, for whom the Kuiper belt is named—told Roman about a position at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, DC, she took it. “I believed that Kuiper’s suggestion was also confirmation that a tenure position at Yerkes was unlikely,” says Roman. The move meant changing her specialization from optical astronomy to radio astronomy, which at the time was a new field for the United States and has since blossomed into a major area of study.
Radio telescopy, just like optical, measures electromagnetic radiation but focusing on different parts of the light spectrum. Radio waves are much longer than visible light waves and can travel through many obstacles that block our vision. So radio telescopes allow astronomers to observe stars in the middle of dense clouds of gas and dust where they’re forming, providing more information about star births than light-based telescopes can.
Because the field was new and NRL’s group of engineers was small, Roman was expected to build her own equipment. “Radio astronomers today are shocked at that,” she says, “because no one builds their own now.” In addition to gaining experience working in different wavelengths, she also gained an engineer’s eye, with an understanding of instrumentation.
Much of NASA’s science originated at NRL, so Roman benefited from being in the right place at the right time. It was a quick and logical jump to NASA to set up and lead its astronomy program.
“It was like learning to swim by jumping into deep water,” Roman says of her switch to management. In a 1980 interview with the American Institute of Physics, she describes taking a couple of courses for women in management, which she found less than helpful. “The speakers were people who were used to talking to men in management and, as far as I could tell, gave us essentially the same things, except they sort of ‘feminized’ it without understanding the real problems that women in management face,” she said. “They tried to add things like ‘dress design.’”
Nevertheless, she has no regrets about trading research for management. She encountered opposition at times, but it didn’t seem to be based on her gender. Rather, she believes academics were wary of her federal affiliation, citing a mistrust of government entities.
Roman, widely regarded as the “mother of Hubble,” finds the moniker “slightly embarrassing,” but it grew from good intentions. Physicist and astronomer Lyman Spitzer Jr. is considered the “father of Hubble,” but Roman—chief of astronomy and NASA’s first woman to hold an executive position—was equally responsible for bringing the Hubble Space Telescope to fruition. At a meeting shortly after its April 1990 launch, Edward J. Weiler, a former student of Spitzer’s and Hubble chief scientist at the time, bestowed the name on Roman.
Hubble, the world’s first large space-based optical telescope, is named after Edwin P. Hubble, SB 1910, PhD 1917. At launch it carried five instruments, including cameras, spectrographs, and fine guidance sensors, and it has been visited five times for repairs and new instrument installations. (Five-time space shuttle astronaut John Grunsfeld, SM’84, PhD’88, conducted three of these repairs.)
Hubble has beamed back to Earth hundreds of thousands of images, though the earliest ones were blurry. The telescope’s primary mirror had a flaw: the outer edge was ground down too flat by about 1/50 the thickness of a human hair. During the first repair mission in December 1993, NASA installed the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR). In other words, they fitted Hubble with eyeglasses.
Since then, Hubble has helped determine the age of the universe, the identity of quasars, and the existence of dark energy. It remains one of NASA’s most successful and enduring missions.
The telescope wasn’t her idea, insists Roman. It was an idea shared by almost all astronomers, “certainly all observational astronomers.” She did, however, advocate for the project, writing congressional testimony and selling the government on the notion that the $1.5 billion price tag (not including ongoing operating costs) was a worthwhile expenditure.
Roman also gathered a group of astronomers from various specialties across the country and sat them down with NASA engineers to determine what was wanted versus what was feasible. At that time, all observatories were ground based. A telescope put into orbit would have a major advantage, because even the most powerful Earth-bound telescopes capture blurry and distorted images since starlight refracts through Earth’s atmosphere.
The astronomers decided a three-meter telescope would be ideal, but convincing Congress would be a challenge, so they reduced the scope and decreased mirror size to 2.4 meters. One main goal for the Hubble Telescope was to determine the “Hubble constant,” Roman explained in a NASA oral history, measuring the ratio between the velocity of a galaxy’s recession and its distance to determine the universe’s expansion rate—and, in turn, the age of the universe.
This measurement must come from far-off galaxies because nearby galaxies all belong to the same gravitationally interacting group. The closest group that could be used was the Virgo cluster, and a mirror any smaller than 2.4 meters wouldn’t be powerful enough. (The constant was published in 2001 by a team led by Wendy Freedman, now the John and Marion Sullivan University Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UChicago, when she was at Carnegie Observatories—the first woman on its permanent staff and later the director.)
Starting in the late 1960s through the early ’80s, the team designed the space telescope, sold the concept to Congress for funding, built the equipment, and readied for launch. The Challenger shuttle disaster waylaid the mission, but finally the Hubble Space Telescope launched aboard Discovery in 1990—44 years after its earliest conception by Spitzer in 1946.
Roman thought Hubble would be phased out with the 2018 deployment of its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, whose major missions will be to study extrasolar planets and to learn more about the beginnings of the observable universe. But earlier this year, she heard that Hubble may operate for many years to come. She planned to discuss its future with administrators at Goddard Flight Center.
Retiring in 1979, she’s not really in the know at NASA anymore. “I made a distinct effort not to get involved with headquarters,” says Roman, “because I didn’t think it was fair to my successor to meddle.” (She handpicked Weiler as her successor, who called himself, in NASA at 50: Interviews with NASA’s Senior Leadership, NASA’s first male chief of astronomy.)
While Roman is proud of the work she did to get Hubble off the ground, so to speak, it’s another space telescope that she has a real affection for, “one that nobody’s ever heard of,” she says: the International Ultraviolet Explorer. The 18-inch telescope took UV spectra, which was unusual when it launched in 1978.
“There was opposition to it from the X-ray astronomy community, who felt it was usurping money from their projects.” The UV community wasn’t as politically powerful as the X-ray astronomers, and Roman went to bat for it.
The IUE was open to anyone who wanted to use it and was always available because of its synchronous orbit, meaning its orbit was equal to one Earth day. “Hubble also took UV spectra, but it was in high demand for faint sources and particularly for imaging,” says Roman. With its UV exclusivity, the IUE was used by half the observational astronomers in the world, Roman was told. It was shut down after 18 years because of cost, far surpassing its three-year life expectancy.
She believes that, unlike Hubble, the IUE truly would not have existed without her, but “mother of the International Ultraviolet Explorer” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
After Roman retired early from NASA, she wasn’t quite ready to stop working, she explains in a 2013 autobiographical essay. She needed to learn modern computers and digital detectors if she was to return to research, so she audited a community college course in the programming language FORTRAN. But by the end of the class, she decided that after 20 years in management, she couldn’t return to research, so she pursued consultant work with government contractors. Eventually, needing a new challenge, she joined Goddard’s Astronomical Data Center in 1981—revisiting her early astronomy catalog experience—and in 1995 became the center’s director.
In 1997 she retired again, and again she continued to work. This time it was service and volunteer oriented, such as joining Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic (now called Learning Ally) and Journey to the Universe, a program that sent scientists and engineers to schools in underserved areas of the United States. Many of her activities involved working with schoolchildren. Roman also gives public talks in senior centers, universities, and churches. In 2016 she gave 13 talks on topics such as the big bang, space discoveries, and the night sky.
She hopes to be a good role model. “I like to talk to children about the advantages of going into science and particularly to tell the girls, by showing them my life, that they can be scientists and succeed,” she says. She gets emails from girls who, after learning about Roman’s life and work, have decided to go into science.
To women already in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) who are still experiencing sexism, she says: “Persevere. Things are better than they used to be. Women now can and do get professorships; women are heads of observatories and departments.” But the number of women in senior academic positions is not commensurate with the number of women in the field, she says, and advises they prepare for inevitable problems.
When the 25th anniversary of Hubble rolled around in 2015, astronomers and astrophiles alike celebrated, and Twitter paid tribute to Nancy Grace Roman (who started using her middle name again not too long ago, returning to her Southern-born traditions).
One user wrote: “Nancy Roman took chief astronomer job at NASA because *women couldn’t get tenure*, opted to reshape history of astronomy instead #planB.”
Roman doesn’t have a Twitter account, but hearing it aloud and reflecting on her career, she chuckles. “Appears so.”