Back in the 1950s few women in the United States worked outside of the home, and even fewer earned doctorate degrees or went on to have professional careers.
However, as the first chief of astronomy at the U.S. space agency, Nancy Grace Roman is a notable exception.
Mesmerized by the moon
Roman’s fascination with space began not long after she was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1925, the only child of a teacher and a scientist.
“My grandmother sent back a letter that mother had written when I was four, saying that my favorite thing to draw was the moon," she says. "Certainly by the time I was in seventh grade, I knew I had to have a long education if I wanted to become an astronomer, but I figured I’d try it and if I didn’t get far enough I could always end up teaching in high school or math or physics.”
Pursuing her interest in astronomy was not easy. Women of her generation were systematically discouraged from going into 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 says. "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.”
Shaking off stereotypes
But Roman was determined to become an astronomer and learn everything she could about stars. She went to college, studied science and earned her doctorate in astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1949.
Courtesy Nancy Grace Roman
Nancy Grace Roman, center, with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office at the White House in 1962.
She spent the next decade teaching and working as a research associate but soon realized that, as a woman, her prospects for advancement at a research institution were limited.
So, in 1959, she accepted a job at NASA, the U.S. space agency, to set up a program in space astronomy.
As part of her new job, Roman travelled around the country, trying to understand what astronomers really wanted.
“Astronomers had been wanting to get observations from above the atmosphere for a long time. Looking through the atmosphere is somewhat like looking through a piece of old, stained glass," Roman says. "The glass has defects in it, so the image is blurred from that.”
That need for clear, sharp images from space was all the motivation she needed.
Roman helped develop The Hubble Space Telescope, a large, space-based observatory which has revolutionized astronomy by providing unprecedented deep and clear views of the universe.
“I set up a committee of astronomers from all over the country, plus some engineers from NASA, to sit down together and decide what we should do, what did the astronomers want to do, what did the engineers think was possible to do, and I led that effort for several years until we had a fairly detailed design of what we thought would make sense.”
That design was the Hubble Space Telescope, an instrument that could soar above the atmosphere, orbit the earth, and capture and transmit clear observations of the universe back to earth.
NASA’s current chief astronomer, who worked with Roman at the agency, calls her “the mother of the Hubble Space Telescope.”
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped this image of the planetary nebula on July 27, 2009. It is one of Nancy Grace Roman's favorite Hubble images.
“Which is often forgotten by our younger generation of astronomers who make their careers by using Hubble Space Telescope," says Ed Weiler. "Regretfully, history has forgotten a lot in today’s Internet age, but it was Nancy in the old days before the Internet and before Google and e-mail and all that stuff, who really helped to sell the Hubble Space Telescope, organize the astronomers, who eventually convinced Congress to fund it.”
Encouraging others to reach for the stars
Since retiring from NASA in 1979, Roman spends much of her time consulting, teaching and lecturing across the country, all the while continuing to be a passionate advocate for science.
Courtesy Nancy Grace Roman
Nancy Grace Roman teaches astronomy to 5th graders at Shepherd Elementary School in Washington, DC, in the late 1990s.
Today, at the age of 86, Roman enjoys motivating young girls to dream big.
“One of the reasons I like working with schools is to try to convince women that they can be scientists and that science can be fun,” she says.
Roman hopes she's inspired young women to set aside their inhibitions and reach for the stars, just as she did.
doctorate (degree) (n) 博士學位
exception (n) 例外;例外的人
mesmerize (v) 迷住；迷惑
astronomer (n) 天文學家
systematically (adv) 有系統地；有組織地
look down one’s nose at (v phr) 瞧不起
reception (n) 感受,反應
南茜格雷斯羅曼女士 (Nancy Grace Roman) 是哈伯望遠鏡(Hubble Space Telescope)的重要推手，現已高齡86歲，新聞中被尊稱為「哈伯太空望遠鏡之母」。在羅曼博士成長的50年代，女性外出工作不是社會常態，要取得博士學位(doctorate degree)或是在專業職場任職(professional career)，更是少數中的少數。羅曼博士便是一個耀眼的例外(a notable exception)。
羅曼博士回想起，她從小就對月亮著迷(mesmerized by the moon)，自四歲起她最喜歡畫的總是月亮。當時她也瞭解，需要有完整的教育才能成為天文學家(astronomer)。由於當時社會架構是不鼓勵女性進入科學領域的，所以她求學過程中也不總是輕鬆。文中使用了「系統性(systematically)」一字來描述當時的社會氣氛，指示有種一致性、全面的、難以突破的價值體系存在，阻礙了女性往科學界發展。羅曼回想起有一回在選課時，因為不選拉丁文，選擇了代數學(algebra)，導師(guidance teacher)竟是用輕視的眼神與譏諷回應(looked down her nose at me and sneered)。她說這是她在這條路上最常得到的回應(reception)。
prospect (n) (成功的)可能性；前景
atmosphere (n) 大氣
defects (n) 缺點，缺陷
羅曼在學成後的十年間，一邊從事教學，一邊作為研究機構的副研究員(research associate)。但她不久也瞭解到，女性要在當時的研究機構裡發展的機會相當受限(her prospects . . . were limited)。因此，在1959年，她進入了美國太空總署(NASA)，著手一個天文學計劃。當時她因職務需要，常各處拜訪，了解天文學家們的需要。尋訪的結果是，當時的天文學家們渴望有辦法能在大氣層之上來觀測宇宙。大氣層(atmosphere)就像是一片老舊而有髒汙的玻璃(a piece of old, stained glass)，由於這片玻璃充滿了缺陷(defects)，透過它所看到的影像也是模糊不清 (blurred)。
revolutionize (v) 徹底改革，在...方面實現突破性大變革
unprecedented (a) 無先例的，空前的
regretfully (adv) 懊悔地，抱歉地
羅曼瞭解了當時天文學家們的需要，開始了太空望遠鏡計畫。這個巨型的，設置在太空的觀測站為天文學帶來革命性的改變 (large, space-based observatory. . . has revolutionized astronomy)，提供的影像清晰而深遠，前所未見(unprecedented)。現任的太空總署主任愛德維勒(Ed Weiler)不禁興嘆(regretfully)，在這網路時代，歷史特別容易被遺忘。羅曼當時是如此努力的推銷哈伯望遠鏡，組織動員了天文學家們，最後才得以促使國會通過預算。「懊悔地，抱歉地 (regretfully)」一字在這裡並不是指Ed Weiler對自己的所作所為感到抱歉、悔恨，或遺憾的意思。以上下文來看，他抒發不平的是，羅曼在天文學歷史上的貢獻還沒被世人普遍知道，好像就要在歷史裡被埋沒了。
reach for (v phr) 伸手去拿
advocate (n) 提倡者；擁護者
inhibition (n) 禁止，抑制
羅曼於1979年退休後從事顧問，教學與全國演說，繼續作為推廣科學的發聲者(advocate)。她鼓勵女孩子們要勇於懷抱夢想(dream big)，排除各種阻礙 (set aside their inhibitions)，努力追求理想 (reach for the stars)。「摘星 (reach for the stars)」在此是一語雙關的用法，星星象徵的是如天上星星一樣崇高的理想。在羅曼的故事裡，正是對於天上繁星的熱情與執著，加上勇於追求的精神，成就了她成為天文學家的夢想。