Shooting for stars in man-only world

Shooting for stars in man-only world

Dr Nancy Grace Roman with a model of the Orbiting Solar Observatory. Wikimedia Commons

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST or Hubble) is a satellite observatory positioned above the Earth’s atmosphere with the sole purpose of gazing into the expanse of the universe. The dazzling imagery — of our closest cosmic neighbours to faraway galaxies — provided by Hubble has given us an insight into the mysteries that lie in the bowels of deep space.

Since its launch in 1990, HST has streamed terabytes of valuable data, offering a fresh perspective on the cosmic puzzles. The quantum contributions helped prove several theories that hitherto remained conjectures. In all, astronomy leapfrogged with the addition of keen eyes stationed up above.

Interestingly, the concept of a space telescope was spurned and met with resistance initially. Many scientists and the government raised doubts in its feasibility and were unwilling to stake the millions that called for the project.

However, Hubble is what it is today due to the relentless efforts of one woman, Nancy Grace Roman, who lobbied and doggedly pursued it for decades. Little known, Roman was a woman of impact with a steely will. Foreseeing the merits of a space telescope, she promoted the project to realisation.

“My work helped others explore the evolution of the galaxy,” she once told National Geography. Indeed, Hubble’s 1.3 million discoveries have spawned around 15,000 scientific papers and several astronomy quests. The Hubble revolutionised our view and understanding of the universe.

Against all odds

Born in 1925, Nancy grew up in times when societal norms considered sciences to be a male bastion and dissuaded women for pursuing them. However, little Nancy had stars in her eyes and grew up with a keen interest in astronomy. Parental support gave her wings to fly, and she determinedly opted for a bachelor’s degree in astronomy. By 1949, she obtained a PhD in the same subject from the University of Chicago.

Dr Roman encountered many stumbling blocks throughout her illustrious career: initially, she worked as an instructor and Assistant Professor at the Yerkes Observatory. However, convinced that research assignments would not come by for women, she chalked her career path by working at the US Naval Research Laboratory. Here too, facing limited tenure, she had to work extra hard to prove her mettle.

A path-breaking chance came her way in 1959 when, the then fledgeling organisation Nasa, offered her a position to start an astronomy wing at their facility. There was no looking back since then. Helming affairs as the Chief of Astronomy at Nasa, she spearheaded various projects in the Office of Space Science. She was also the first woman to hold and remain in the role for the next 20 years. Her contributions during this period influenced astronomy for the next five decades.

It was here that she began the arduous task of convincing the government and the public to fund for a space observatory. She emphasised that seeing stars through the atmosphere was like looking at them through a tainted piece of glass; whereas unhindered by atmospheric distortion, space telescopes could view them with clarity.

Eventually, after thirty years, her efforts materialised into three space observatories including HST, earning her the informal moniker, “Mother of the Hubble”. Dr Roman was retired from service when HST was launched. However, she continued to be an active participant as a consultant for Nasa in all background research programmes.

Apart from HST, she was involved in projects such as the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) that confirmed the Big Bang Theory of Evolution, Astronomy Rocket programme, and experiments on Skylab, Gemini and Apollo.

A role model

An ardent advocate for women in science, Dr Roman was instrumental in creating several career opportunities for them through her role in the American Association of University Women. She toured extensively promoting her projects and inspiring women, and particularly young girls, to take up advanced sciences.

Being a woman did not deter her at any stage. She has to her credit several scientific papers and awards: Women in Aerospace’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Nasa Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award, and the Nasa Outstanding Scientific Leadership Award; also named after her is an asteroid — 2516Roman; Lego released a miniature figurine of her under the theme of Women in Nasa.

Dr Roman led a long and eventful life as an astrophysicist until her demise on December 25, 2018. She particularly sought to teach fifth graders astronomy, and inspire them to take interest and learn science. As she put it: “Science can be fun.”