This year we mark the 30th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. Saturday marks the birthday of an amazing astronomer. Born in 1925 in Nashville Tennessee and died aged 93 on Christmas Day 2018. She is known as the Mother of Hubble.
She was the former chief of astronomy at NASA and was responsible for founding the agency’s program for space astronomy in 1959. She played a central role in planning and developing the Hubble Space Telescope and was the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA.
Her passion for the stars began at a young age. When she was 11 years old, her family was living in Reno. She was enthralled by the stars in the clear night skies and joined with friends in forming an astronomy club.
Her mother, Georgia Smith Roman, was a music teacher, taught her to love birds, plants and the stars and planets that swirl above the Earth. Her father, Irwin Roman, was a geophysicist. He “answered my scientific questions,” Roman once told NASA.
It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the cosmos.
However, her passion for scientific subjects was often met with resistance, if not outward contempt.
“I still remember asking my high school guidance teacher for permission to take a second year of algebra instead of a fifth year of Latin,” she later told Voice of America, according to Goldstein. “She looked down her nose at me and sneered, ‘What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?’ That was the sort of reception that I got most of the way.”
Undeterred, Roman obtained a degree in astronomy from Swathmore College in Pennsylvania in 1946, and then a doctorate in the same subject from the University of Chicago. In 1959, after working at the United States Research Laboratory, Roman was recruited to the newly founded National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Through the 1980s, she helped plan and develop the Hubble Space Telescope, which meant getting input from astronomers around the world to learn what the scientific community needed and what sort of instrument would be most useful to astronomy in the coming years, and then managing the teams of engineers working to implement those ideas.
She also advocated for the costly project with Congress and NASA administration, persuading them to fund Hubble’s construction and launch. For those efforts, her colleagues remember her as the “mother of Hubble, and the space telescope she helped bring into existence will, despite some recent trouble with its gyroscopes, outlives its mother.
And the data and images Hubble sends home will eventually outlive the telescope itself.
Roman retired from NASA in 1979 and spent the next several years of her career as a contractor working at Goddard Space Flight Center. LEGO included her as a mini-figure in a set of important women in space history, alongside Margaret Hamilton, Mae Jemison, and Sally Ride.
When she was once asked what advice she would give to students interested in science careers, she said: “If you enjoy puzzles, science or engineering may be the field for you, because scientific research and engineering is a continuous series of solving puzzles.”
“Science, like all jobs, has its share of drudgery and boredom,” she added, “but basically it is fun.”