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Meet: Nancy Roman, the first Chief of Astronomy and first female to hold executive position at NASA

photo of Nancy Roman

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I always wanted to be an astronomer. When I was 11, I organized a "club" among my friends that met once each week to learn the constellations. When I was in junior high, I read every astronomy book in our local library. In high school and college many people made it clear that astronomy was not a field for a woman but I am glad I was stubborn. I have had a wonderful career!

My career has had three phases: 1) research and teaching, 2) management, and 3) support. I started at the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago where I observed the spectra and brightnesses of stars as part of research in stellar distances and motions. I also taught graduate courses. In those days, we could get substantial telescope time and I often spent as much as four months a year at an observatory in west Texas. In addition, I have used telescopes at four other US observatories as well as telescopes in Canada and Chile. I enjoyed both research and teaching but forty years ago, it was nearly impossible for a woman to get tenure in an astronomy research department. Therefore I left the University to join the radio astronomy branch at the Naval Research laboratory, thus becoming a Civil Servant. I added observing with radio telescopes to my experience.

A few months after NASA was formed, I was asked if I knew anyone who would like to set up a program in space astronomy. I knew that taking on that responsibility would mean that I could no longer do forefront research but the challenge of starting with a clean slate to formulate a program that would influence astronomy for decades to come was too great to resist. I was responsible for many astronomical satellites, culminating in the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). I also led an extensive program of ground based and rocket research. Although I did not take part in the research myself, I was in close contact with the research being done with these new techniques. I traveled a great deal in the United States, visiting universities and other establishments and also attended many meetings all over the world. I knew all of the leading astronomers personally and have had many satisfying friendships with them.

After 21 years in NASA, I was beginning to feel that the job had gotten stale. Moreover, my mother was then living with me and was starting to need more attention than I could provide along with a demanding job. I took advantage of an "early out" period to retire at a younger age than normal. Nevertheless, I did not want to leave astronomy completely. Instead, I decided to work half time. This left me time to take care of my mother and also enjoy other activities. I have continued to work for several contractors supporting NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in a variety of activities. These included among other activities, writing, studies of the use of satellites in geodesy, planning for the testing of the HST, satellite pointing, and planning for the Earth Observation System. I not only used my background but learned many new things. One contractor supported the Astronomical Data Center (ADC) in NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.I have continued to work there and it is now my only job. For some time, I was the Head of this Center. The ADC archives computer-readable astronomical catalogs and makes them readily available to astronomers throughout the world.

A typical day in my present position might include the following: I review a recent issue of an astronomical publication for large tables that we might want to archive, enjoying the science being reported at the same time. I also learn about catalogs from meetings and personal contacts. I send electronic mail to authors requesting the data files and correspond with authors and others concerning various problems related to archiving the data. When the data comes in, I prepare a document that describes the data and tells another astronomer how to read them. I check the data to see that there are no obvious problems such as data in the wrong columns or impossible values. I either correct these or ask the author for the proper values. I may reformat the data to make them more accessible or prepare entirely new files to supplement those submitted. I meet with others in the ADC to coordinate our activities. I answer questions we receive from both professional astronomers and amateurs.I add new information to documents prepared some time ago to make them easier to find and use. Often, this means checking, correcting, and reformatting the data as is done for new catalogs. In addition to the normal data routine, I give many talks about the ADC explaining our services and how to use them. The most distant such meeting in which I spoke was in St. Petersburg, Russia. There I also met with representatives of four other centers like ours that form an international network.

Although I love astronomy, I have other interests both in and outside the home. Working half time lets me enjoy these also. I am not sure I have hobbies -- I like too many things. A major activity is reading. I like to cook and sew and do many kinds of handwork: knitting, crocheting, and tatting. I enjoy music, paying the piano (badly) for my own enjoyment and attending many concerts. I take advantage of the art museums and the lectures in the Washington area. I am also doing some non-astronomical traveling to interesting places without observatories.

Archived QuestChats with Nancy Roman


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