NASA has renamed its Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a next-generation space telescope set to launch in 2025, in honor of Nancy Grace Roman, the US space agency’s first chief astronomer, who paved the way for space telescopes focused on the broader universe.
The newly named Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope — or Roman Space Telescope, for short — will investigate long-standing astronomical mysteries, such as the force behind the universe’s expansion, and search for distant planets beyond our solar system, NASA said on Wednesday.
Considered the “mother” of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which launched 30 years ago, Roman tirelessly advocated for new tools that would allow scientists to study the broader universe from space.
She left behind a tremendous legacy in the scientific community when she died in 2018.
“It is because of Nancy Grace Roman’s leadership and vision that NASA became a pioneer in astrophysics and launched Hubble, the world’s most powerful and productive space telescope,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
“I can think of no better name for WFIRST, which will be the successor to NASA’s Hubble and Webb Telescopes.”
Who was Nancy Grace Roman?
Born on May 16, 1925, in Nashville, Tennessee, Roman consistently persevered in the face of challenges that plagued many women of her generation interested in science.
By seventh grade, she knew she wanted to be an astronomer. Despite being discouraged about going into science, Roman earned a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Swarthmore in 1946 and a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1949.
The head of Swarthmore College’s physics department told her he usually dissuaded girls from majoring in physics but thought that she “might make it”.
Knowing that her chances of achieving tenure at a university as a woman were slim at that time, she took a position at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and made strides in researching cosmic questions through radio waves.
Roman came to NASA in 1959, just six months after the agency had been established. At that time, she served as the chief of astronomy and relativity in the Office of Space Science, managing astronomy-related programs and grants.
“I knew that taking on this responsibility would mean that I could no longer do research, but the challenge of formulating a program from scratch that I believed would influence astronomy for decades to come was too great to resist,” she said in a NASA interview.
This was a difficult era for women who wanted to advance in scientific research.
While Roman said that men generally treated her equally at NASA, she also revealed in one interview that she had to use the prefix “Dr.” with her name because “otherwise, I could not get past the secretaries.”
But she persisted in her vision to establish new ways to probe the secrets of the universe.
Through Roman’s leadership, NASA launched four Orbiting Astronomical Observatories between 1966 and 1972.
While only two of the four were successful, they demonstrated the value of space-based astrophysics and represented the precursors to Hubble.
Roman is credited with making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality. It turned out to be the most scientifically revolutionary space telescope of all time.
Ed Weiler, Hubble’s chief scientist until 1998, called Roman “the mother of the Hubble Space Telescope.”