NASA announced Wednesday that one of its most ambitious upcoming space telescopes would be named for Nancy Grace Roman, who pioneered the role of women in the space agency.
Dr. Roman joined the agency in 1959 when NASA was only six months old, and rose to be its first chief astronomer. She is credited, among other things, with championing and spearheading the development of the Hubble Space Telescope. Around the agency and in astronomical circles she is known as “the mother of Hubble.” She died in 2018.
The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, as it is now named, is being designed to investigate the mysterious dark energy speeding up the expansion of the universe and to scan space for exoplanets belonging to distant stars. The project to build the telescope has survived several attempts by the Trump administration to kill it, and is now slated to be launched later this decade.
Until now it has been known by the decidedly uncatchy name of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or Wfirst. The acronym had a double meaning: “W” is the name for a crucial parameter that measures the virulence of dark energy, thus giving a clue to the fate of the universe.
“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,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said in a statement issued by the space agency.
Dr. Roman was born in Nashville on May 16, 1925, and grew up enamored of the stars in an era in which women were not encouraged to pursue science. At Swarthmore College she majored in physics against the advice of her professors. In a video clip shown as part of the announcement Wednesday, she recalled that at the University of Chicago, where she obtained a Ph.D., her thesis adviser once went six months without speaking to her.
But she persisted, as the saying goes, to become a champion of astronomy in space.
This is the second time in the last year that a major American observatory has been named for a woman astronomer. Earlier this year the National Science Foundation named its new telescope in Chile after Vera Rubin, another persistent woman who pioneered the study of dark matter. The study of dark energy will also be one of the primary targets of that telescope when it starts up.
Dr. Rubin and Dr. Roman are thus in good company.
In making the announcement Wednesday, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said of Dr. Roman, “Her name deserves a place in the heavens she studied and opened for so many.”