In 1942, the head of the physics department at Swarthmore College told an eager new student that he usually discouraged women from majoring in physics, although he admitted that Nancy Grace Roman “might make it.” 18 years later, she became NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy – not the first female Chief of Astronomy, but the first one, period. And this week, NASA announced that one of its biggest upcoming telescopes will bear her name. The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, formerly known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will examine planets in distant star systems and study the oldest, most distant objects in the universe.

Mother Of Space Telescopes

Roman is best known as the “mother of Hubble” for her work in shepherding the Hubble Space Telescope from a vague idea in the mid-1960s, through its development in the 1980s, to its launch in 1990 (30 years ago this week, in fact). But really, she’s the mother or grandmother of all of NASA’s space telescopes. Today’s space telescopes – and tomorrow’s – owe their existence to Roman’s ideas, advocacy, and development.

When Roman joined the newly-formed NASA in 1959 and became its first Chief of Astronomy in 1960, astronomers’ view of the universe was very limited, thanks to the terribly inconvenient fact that we live on a planet with a relatively thick atmosphere that absorbs nearly all the light in certain wavelengths. If astronomers wanted to study objects that produced X-ray or ultraviolet wavelengths, for example, they had to send instruments up on weather balloons or sounding rockets. Infrared astronomy was only possible with rockets, balloons, or from the tops of the highest mountains. And even in the visible wavelengths, the atmosphere tends to distort incoming light – a bit like looking through thick glass – and light pollution is an ever-growing problem.

(Today NASA has a specialized aircraft, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy or SOFIA, that carries an infrared telescope to high altitudes; you can read more about it here early next week.)

The obvious solution was to put telescopes into space, where they’d be above the light-blocking atmosphere and able to look at the universe in any wavelength, with a wider field of view and no inconvenient daylight to interrupt the astronomy. Roman wasn’t the first to come up with the idea; astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer proposed the idea for a space telescope in 1946, the year Roman graduated from Swarthmore. But it would be up to Roman, as Chief of Astronomy at NASA, to make it happen.

Going Where No Telescope Had Gone Before

The first attempt, Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 1, failed a few days after it reached orbit in 1966. “NASA was trying to learn a completely new process with unexpected problems arising all along,” Roman said in 2018. After all, no one had ever built, launched, or used a space telescope before. Keeping the satellite pointed the right direction, for instance, was a whole new challenge.

Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 2 launched in 1968. From its orbit 750 km (470 miles) above the ground, its array of 30.5 cm (12 inches) and 40.6 cm (1 inches) telescopes captured ultraviolet light from nearby comets and distant galaxies. Even those relatively small telescopes in space gave astronomers a better view of the universe in UV than they’d had before.

“She firmly believed that space observation would offer years of good science, and this has proven to be the case,” wrote Roman’s cousins Laura Bates Verreau and Barbara Brinker in a prepared statement.

After the successes of OAO 2 and OAO 3, Roman was ready to think bigger – a lot bigger. She spent the next decade working on a project called the Large Space Telescope, which would eventually become the Hubble Space Telescope. Roman convinced NASA to take on the ambitious project, convinced Congress to fund it, and worked with astronomers from around the world to make sure the space telescope would do the kinds of science that needed to be done.

When Hubble launched in 1990, it became Roman’s biggest legacy. She died in 2018, but the telescope she helped bring to life is still in orbit, giving astronomers – and the rest of us – a view of the universe in visible, near infrared, and ultraviolet light. And Hubble may still be observing the universe when its successors – first the James Webb Space Telescope, and then Roman’s namesake in the mid-2020s – join it in orbit.  

“Although the professional recognition of having a telescope named after her would certainly be gratifying to Nancy Grace, we think the possibility of inspiring other girls to reach for their own stars would give her the greatest satisfaction,” wrote Verreau and Brinker.