Nancy Grace Roman
Nancy Grace Roman Image Credit: Supplied

New York: When Nancy Grace Roman was 11 years old, her family was living in Reno, Nevada. She was enthralled by the stars in the clear night skies and joined with friends in forming an astronomy club.

It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the cosmos.

When she died on Wednesday in Germantown, Maryland, at 93, Roman was remembered as “the mother of the Hubble.”

As Nasa’s first chief of astronomy and the first woman in a leadership position at the space agency, Roman oversaw the early planning for the Hubble Space Telescope, which began orbiting Earth above its atmosphere in April 1990 to capture an unobstructed view of the universe.

Placed into orbit from a manned Discovery shuttle and named for pioneering American astronomer Edwin Hubble, it became the first large optical telescope in space. It has enhanced knowledge of distant galaxies as well as planets in our own solar system by transmitting images that would have been distorted if it were operating from within the Earth’s atmosphere.

“It was Nancy in the old days before the internet and before Google and email and all that stuff who really helped to sell the Hubble Space Telescope, organise the astronomers, who eventually convinced Congress to fund it,” Edward J. Weiler, Roman’s successor as chief scientist for the Hubble, told the Voice of America in 2011.

In addition to coordinating the efforts of astronomers and engineers in their development of the Hubble, Roman wrote testimony for Nasa representatives making the case for the Hubble before Congress and she pitched the project to the Bureau of the Budget.

Roman also took part in development of the Cosmic Background Explorer, a satellite launched in 1989 that confirmed the Big Bang Theory of the universe’s creation.

She was a trailblazer for women at a time when science was considered a man’s world, and she became a longtime advocate for women in science.

“I still remember asking my high school guidance teacher for permission to take a second year of algebra instead of a fifth year of Latin,” she recalled. “She looked down her nose at me and sneered, ‘What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?’ That was the sort of reception that I got most of the way,” she told the Voice of America.