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Nancy Grace Roman was the first female executive at NASA and is celebrated for her foundational role in planning the Hubble Space Telescope. As NASA’s chief astronomer, she tirelessly advocated for new tools that would allow scientists to study the broader universe from space. In 2020, NASA named the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.


Roman earned a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Swarthmore in 1946. As a graduate student at UChicago, she found more than 200 stars associated with the Ursa Major cluster. After finishing in 1949, she stayed on as a postdoc, instructor, and then assistant professor—the first woman on UChicago’s astronomy faculty. During this period, she studied spectroscopic features in bright, high-velocity stars. She discovered that the stars’ compositions varied in relation to their velocities, directions, and, to some extent, location in the galaxy. Roman later said she was especially proud of that work because it was the beginning of an era of understanding the structure of the Milky Way. The work laid the foundation for the field of galactic chemical and dynamical evolution.


Despite her pivotal research at UChicago, Roman faced sexism and wage inequality, later estimating that she made no more than 60% of what her male colleagues earned. According to an interview in 2017, Roman brought her concerns to the department chair, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and was told “we don’t discriminate against women. We can just get them for less.”


In 1959, she left for the Naval Research Laboratory to study radio astronomy. This became a springboard to a long, legendary NASA career. One of two women working for NASA, she managed astronomy-related programs and grants. She oversaw the launch of multiple orbiting observatories but is most famously credited with making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality. In the mid-1960s, she set up a committee of astronomers and engineers to envision the telescope that would be the most scientifically revolutionary space telescope of all time, and the predecessor of the JWST. Roman died in 2018 at the age of 93.

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Alumna (PhD'49) and first female faculty member in Astronomy and Astrophysics, NASA's first chief astronomer who led planning for the Hubble Space Telescope

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Photo Source: NASA

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