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NASA fellowship named for UU astronomer

Known as “Mother of the Hubble,” Nancy Grace Roman hopes to inspire girls to pursue careers in science.
By Donald E. Skinner
10.17.11

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Dr. Nancy Grace Roman in 1961

Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, with a model of the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Orbiting Solar Observatory, in 1961. (courtesy Nancy Grace Roman)

For 20 years until she retired in 1979, Dr. Nancy Grace Roman was NASA’s chief astronomer, and also the first person to hold that title. As part of that job she helped design the Hubble Space Telescope, earning her the unofficial title of “Mother of the Hubble.” And now NASA has honored her by creating the Nancy Grace Roman Technology Fellowships in Astrophysics.

That puts her in good company. NASA’s three other astrophysics fellowships are named for Edwin Hubble, Albert Einstein, and Carl Sagan.

Roman, 86, an active and longtime member of River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., says she had the good fortune to be born to parents in 1925 in Nashville who shared their love of science and nature with her. Her father was a geophysicist who encouraged her scientific questions. Her mother, a teacher, introduced her to birds, plants, and constellations.

Roman grew up loving the stars. At age four her favorite thing to draw was the moon. At 11, she organized an astronomy club with her friends. In school she read everything she could find about astronomy in the Baltimore library. She studied it at Swarthmore College, then got her PhD in it at the University of Chicago in 1949. She joined NASA in 1959, a few months after its formation, to set up a program of astronomy from space.

As part of her job she traveled around the country trying to learn what astronomers wanted from NASA. She knew they wanted space observations from above the atmosphere, because “Looking through the atmosphere is somewhat like looking through a piece of old, stained glass,” she said. But how did they want to use NASA’s early capabilities?

She set up a committee of astronomers, plus NASA engineers, to decide how to get those observations. The Hubble was a result. It was carried into orbit by a space shuttle in 1990 and remains in service.

In an interview this past summer with Voice of America, Dr. Edward Weiler, who was chief scientist of the Hubble Space Telescope from 1979 to 1998, described Roman’s role in creating the Hubble. “. . . history has forgotten a lot in today’s Internet age, but it was Nancy in the old days before the Internet and before Google and email and all that stuff who really helped to sell the Hubble Space Telescope, organize the astronomers, who eventually convinced Congress to fund it.”

Roman has had no shortage of honors over the years. In 1962 Life magazine named her as one of the 100 most important young people in America. In 1987 an asteroid, Roman 1987, was named for her.

She is currently writing her autobiography. “I hope it will be an inspiration to young girls to think about a career in science,” she said.

She has Unitarian roots that run deep. Her parents were members of a Nashville congregation in the 1920s. “I believe that makes me a birthright Unitarian, although in a few years we moved to an area where there was no Unitarian congregation,” she said. Then came a move to Baltimore, where there was a church. “My father taught my Sunday school class, but there were only two of us in it, and I finally decided I didn’t have to get up on Sunday morning to be taught by my father.”

She also attended another Unitarian congregation in Washington many years ago. “In one sermon the minister said if you believe in God you don’t belong here. I went home and thought about it that afternoon. I decided I did not believe in a god in a human image. But I did believe in God. When I say I believe in God, it’s a recognition that the universe is bigger than the earth. I also can’t accept man as the top of the universe.”

She said she also considers herself Christian, “although I do not believe in the divinity of Jesus,” she said. “But our congregations celebrate Christian holidays and our music and art is largely based on Christianity. I’m really a Christian even though a lot of Christians would deny it.”

Roman added, “I think that the fact that my willingness to buck tradition, especially when people told me science was not a role for women, as they often did when I was young, may have been influenced by the fact I had been brought up to think away from tradition. Unitarianism got me thinking independently and perhaps gave me the courage to fight tradition.”

She has taught Sunday school at Davies Memorial UU Church in Camp Springs, Md., and has spoken to classes at River Road, where she has also presented her “Reflections on a Lifetime” at a Sunday morning forum. She has taught adult classes and ushered. Many people know her as the person who stands between the sanctuary and the fellowship hall on Sunday mornings, holding the small red box for money for local food banks. A party is being planned for her at River Road on Oct. 23.

The Rev. Ginger Luke, minister of religious education and congregational life at River Road, knows Roman (known at church as Nancy Grace) well. “Nancy Grace is so modest she waited almost a month before she told me of this honor from NASA. I am so glad she did, because somehow her recent honor from NASA seems like an honor for all of us. She has opened our eyes and our minds to the beauty and mystery of space and to the remarkable vitality and wisdom of a tiny grey-haired woman who every day lives out her Unitarian Universalist values and faith. She has awakened us to our own pride in seeing a brilliant woman excel and be honored.”

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