NASA will name its newest space telescope for pioneering astronomer Nancy Grace Roman — marking the first time in the agency’s 62-year history that one of its major billion-dollar programs has been named for a woman.
Roman, who overcame obstacles that women faced in her male-dominated field and at NASA to become the agency’s first female executive and its first chief astronomer, is a “fitting” eponym for the project, astronomer Heidi Hammel said Wednesday. Her championing of space-based observatories gave her the nickname “Mother of Hubble.”
With the new telescope, NASA is “taking her child and making it even more powerful,” Hammel said. “It’s widening the Hubble vision.”
Until Wednesday morning, the Roman Space Telescope had been named WFIRST, for Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. Still under development at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the telescope, identical in scale to the Hubble Space Telescope, will study dark matter, dark energy, distant planets and the evolution of the universe. Its launch target is the mid-2020s.
In a statement released by the agency, former senator Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a champion of the Hubble and the Roman, said the decision is fitting as the nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage: “It recognizes the incredible achievements of women in science and moves us even closer to no more hidden figures and no more hidden galaxies.”
Roman, who died in December 2018 at 93, joined NASA months after its founding. She had a doctorate in astronomy, earned nearly a decade earlier at the University of Chicago. Even after leaving the agency in 1979, she remained an advocate for the Hubble.
“I was told from the beginning that women could not be scientists,” she said in an interview late in life.
Julie McEnery, deputy project scientist for the new telescope, said Roman was “somebody I really admired, and it makes me excited and proud to be associated with a mission that’s named after her. This is something that I’m going to enjoy day after day after day as the mission continues.”
As NASA’s first chief astronomer, Roman oversaw the creation of the agency’s earliest orbiting observatories. “Looking through the atmosphere is like looking through a piece of old stained glass,” she wrote in the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics. She knew an observatory in the sky would allow scientists to see objects farther and fainter than they ever had before.
In the 1970s, Roman set up a steering group for what would become the Hubble telescope. She spent untold hours writing testimony for Congress and convincing budget offices of the project’s importance. With its 7.9-foot mirror and $4.5 billion price, the Hubble was far bigger and more costly than any space telescope ever launched. Skeptics wondered whether such an instrument was possible — and even if it was, would it be worth the cost?
“You simply had to be solid in your vision and persistent, and [Roman] had those qualities,” Hammel said.
The agency has struggled to escape the gravity well of a storied history dominated by white males. Dan Goldin, NASA administrator in the 1990s, famously lamented that its culture was “too stale, male and pale.” The agency that put 12 white males on the moon had historically consigned women and racial minorities to second-tier roles.
NASA’s most ambitious effort today is a plan to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024. That program is named Artemis, after the Greek goddess who was the twin sister of Apollo.
Last year, a telescope in Chile operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, and initially called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, was renamed for Vera Rubin. She also was a trailblazing astronomer, renowned for her research showing that galaxies were certain to contain dark matter that cannot be detected through direct observation.
If space scientists have neglected women in the naming of spacecraft, they have at times been downright hostile to women seeking to join their ranks. When NASA was established in 1958, many astronomy programs did not admit women. Observatories had no women’s restrooms. Rubin famously made her own lavatory at Palomar Observatory by pasting a paper cutout of a skirt to a bathroom door. Women were barred from research presentations and scholarly clubs.
As recently as 2018, a sweeping report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that half of women in science had experienced harassment. The problem is especially bad for women of color; a 2017 survey of female space researchers found that 40% of nonwhite respondents had felt unsafe in their workplaces due to racism and sexism.
In an essay for the journal Science, Roman wrote of the hurdles she faced during her early career: A high school guidance counselor scoffed at her request to take advanced algebra, asking, “What lady would want to take mathematics instead of Latin?” And the physics department chairman at Swarthmore College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, said he usually tried to talk women out of his program but conceded that she “might” make it.
“But I am glad I ignored the many people who told me that I could not be an astronomer,” Roman wrote. “I have had a wonderful career in a field that I love.”