Nancy Grace Roman and Early Space Telescopes

Nancy Grace Roman and Early Space Telescopes

An inside look at materials featured at the June 2024 Trimble Lecture

Nancy Grace Roman Papers display from the Niels Bohr Library & Archives at the June 5th, 2024 Trimble Lecture in D.C.

On Wednesday June 5, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) held its second Trimble History of Science Lecture of 2024. This month’s lecture highlighted how the history of science policy informs the future with a discussion entitled “The Next Great Space Telescope: Lessons for Success in the Search for Life Outside the Solar System” with Dr. John Mather, Nobel Prize Winner and former lead project scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and Dr. Mark Clampin, former project scientist on JWST and current Chief of Astrophysics Programs at NASA. Dr. Mather and Dr. Clampin drew on their decades of experience working on large space telescopes and navigating the challenges of policy, practicalities, and setting priorities to share with us the lessons they have learned while planning NASA’s next great space telescope missions to observe life on other worlds, including the upcoming Habitable Worlds Observatory and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. A recording of the lecture is available on the AIP History YouTube Channel here.

As with last month’s Trimble Lecture (see our blog post about it here), the Niels Bohr Library & Archives (NBL&A) hosted a display with materials from our collections related to the lecture. 

The NBL&A holds the archival papers of Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, who was the first Chief of Astrophysics Programs at NASA (the position Dr. Mark Clampin now holds) and led the development of the first space telescope programs. She is also the namesake of NASA’s upcoming new telescope, as mentioned above. We brought to the lecture a selection of materials from Dr. Roman’s personal papers related to some of her early work with space telescopes and advocacy for women in science from the 1960s. In this blog post we are going to give you a behind-the-scenes look at these materials!


Dr. Nancy Grace Roman (1925-2018) was an American astronomer who served as the first Chief of Astronomy Programs as well as the first female executive at NASA. Dr. Roman is perhaps best known for her instrumental role in the development of the Hubble Space Telescope (earning her the nickname “Mother of the Hubble'') and establishing NASA’s program of space-based observatories. After working at NASA for three decades and retiring in 1979, Dr. Roman remained active in science education and advocacy for women in the sciences for the rest of her life. Dr. Roman was also a long-time friend of AIP and NBL&A; she donated her archival personal papers, photographs, and several of her books to us, participated in our oral history program, and was a frequent attendee at AIP events and symposia.

Nancy Roman sitting at desk looking at Archival papers

Nancy Grace Roman in the Niels Bohr Library & Archives reading room, looking at her papers on September 18, 2012. Photo ID: Roman Nancy B25 Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

 Let’s take a look at some of the papers and speeches we have in the Nancy Grace Roman Collection. If you are interested in viewing or reading any of the documents featured below, you can request a digital reference copy by emailing the Niels Bohr Library & Archives at [email protected].

Planets of Other Suns

Decades before the first detection of an exoplanet (a planet orbiting another star), Dr. Nancy Grace Roman saw the potential for space-based observatories in the search for other worlds.   

Item 1:

Item 1: “Planets of Other Suns” [Conference Paper]. Presented at 103rd AAS Meeting, Toronto, Ontario, September 1, 1959. Folder 4, Box 7, Nancy Grace Roman Papers, 1931-1993. Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics. One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740

“It has been customary to assume that it is impossible to detect a planet such as those in our solar system visually, at the distance of the nearest star. From the surface of the earth, this is undoubtedly true since the very large magnitude difference between a small, purely reflecting secondary and the bright primary would completely prevent detection of the fainter object. However, the newly opened possibility of using the moon as a base for scientific investigations not only has rekindled a long standing hope of someday discovering a planet belonging to a sun other than our own, but also may provide the environment necessary for such a discovery”

Nancy Grace Roman. Photo ID: Roman Nancy A1. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Roman Collection

In February 1959, Dr. Nancy Grace Roman began her career at the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the first head of their Observational Astronomy Program. Part of her charge was to develop a new space-based astronomy program which would explore the potential of science that could be done by an observatory positioned outside of Earth’s atmosphere. 

In September of that year, Dr. Roman attended the 103rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) where she presented a paper entitled “Planets of Other Suns.” (see Item 1 above). In this talk, Dr. Roman hailed the potential of space-based observatories for helping detect and directly observe planets outside our solar system, better known now as exoplanets. Exoplanets, especially small earth-sized planets, are hard to observe directly from Earth since they are often obscured by the light of their host star and by scattering effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. In the paper, Dr. Roman speaks of a proposed astronomical observatory on the moon, which would allow for a large telescope to look at changes to the star’s light due to transits of planets the size of ones in our own solar system. Although this moon observatory was never built and the first confirmed detection of an exoplanet would not be until 1992, the techniques Dr. Roman described in the paper are not unlike the methods currently used in large space telescopes for detecting exoplanets.

One of the major focuses for NASA and the field of astrophysical science in the next decade is searching for life on planets outside our solar system. Since 1992, nearly 6,000 exoplanets have been found in our galaxy, however only a couple hundred have actually been directly imaged (or as Dr. Roman put in her paper “detected visually”). Most are indirectly detected through methods such as the transit method, which measures the relative dip in brightness when a planet passes in front of its host star. Direct imaging is useful for studying exoplanetary atmospheres and thus essential in the search for life on other worlds. The next generation of space telescopes, including the Habitable Worlds Observatory and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, are being designed to directly image exoplanets. The latter, named in Dr. Roman’s honor, will use a chronograph to directly observe the exoplanets by blocking out the light of the host star.

Orbiting Astronomical Observatories

One of the first space-based astronomy programs Dr. Roman spearheaded at NASA was the design of orbiting astronomical observatories. These were artificial satellites designed to carry telescopic and other scientific equipment to study astronomical phenomena from Earth’s orbit. The following documents that were on display at the Trimble lecture show some of the public outreach efforts Dr. Roman conducted for these projects in the early 1960s.

Item 2:


Item 2: “Orbiting Astronomical Observatories” [Talk announcement] Star Dust, National Capital Astronomers, Vol. 18, No. 4, Dec. 1960. Folder 4, Box 7, Nancy Grace Roman Papers, 1931-1993. Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics. One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740 

On the front page of this Star Dust newsletter of the National Capital Astronomers is an announcement for a guest talk given by Dr. Roman on orbiting astronomical observatories on December 3, 1960 (Item 2). This was one of many outreach talks Dr. Roman gave in 1960, increasing public awareness and support for the research NASA was doing at the time to create the first space-based astronomical observatories. Dr. Roman presented some tentative designs for these artificial satellites (see also Item 3 below). She also discussed their technical capabilities and scientific potential resulting from operating beyond the limits of Earth’s atmosphere. The project Dr. Roman describes soon came to fruition with the Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) program, a series of scientific satellites launched between 1962 and 1972 that were designed to study the sun and its radiation effects on Earth from Earth’s orbit.

A digital copy of the full newsletter is available on the National Capital Astronomers Star Dust archive.


Item 3:

six design sketches for satellites


Item 3: Designs for Astronomical Satellites. Figures from “Astronomical Satellites of the Near Future”, 18 October 1960. Folder 4, Box 7, Nancy Grace Roman Papers, 1931-1993. Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics. One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740

The above prints are figures from the lecture “Astronomical Satellites of the Near Future,” given by Dr. Roman in 1960 to the Huntsville, Alabama, chapter of the American Rocket Society and Rocket City Astronomical Association. The talk, similar to the one given the the National Capital Astronomers (Item 2), featured some artist’s conceptions and prototype models for astronomical satellites being developed at NASA. As the Chief of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Office of Satellite & Sounding Rocket Program at NASA, Dr. Roman oversaw the development of the Orbiting Solar Observatory program which launched its first satellite, OSO 1, in 1962. Below you can see a photograph from the Roman Collection, showing Dr. Roman circa 1963 with a model of one of the OSO satellites, which is quite similar to some of the early designs shared at her talks.

Nancy Roman holding a model of OSO

Nancy Roman works with a model of the Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) circa 1963. Photo ID: Roman Nancy B10 Credit: NASA, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Roman Collection.

Advocacy for Women in Astronomy

Throughout her career, Dr. Nancy Grace Roman used her role to both serve as a role model and advocate for women in science. In the early 1960s, Dr. Roman traveled the country to speak to students at women’s colleges and encourage young women to consider a career in science. Below are some examples of these early outreach efforts.

Item 4:

Group of female college students standing around Dr. Roman holding a model of spacecraft

Item 4: Nancy Roman & Smith College Students [Photograph]. Nancy Roman (center) conducts a demonstration with Smith College students during a visit to NASA, March 26, 1965. Roman Nancy D4. AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Roman Collection.

In this image, Dr. Roman (center), conducts a demonstration using models of the Orbiting Solar Observatory and a launch rocket, during a visit by students of Smith College (a women’s college in Massachusetts) to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 1965. This image, and others from the Roman Collection, was donated by Dr. Roman to NBL&A in 1995 along with her archival papers.

Item 5:

 Item 5: Role of Women Scientists in the Space Program. [Speech] NASA News Release, January 31, 1963. Folder 6, Box 7, Nancy Grace Roman Papers, 1931-1993. Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics. One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740

This next item is a transcript of a speech entitled “The Role of Women Scientists in the Space Program” given by Dr. Roman at Marymount College (a women’s college in New York) on January 31, 1963. Dr. Roman opens with an anecdote from high school recalling the difficulty in convincing her guidance counselor to let her take advanced mathematics her senior year: the counselor couldn’t understand “What lady would want to study mathematics instead of Latin!” Despite the nation’s need for a new generation of trained scientists during WWII, Dr. Roman was constantly met with this kind of discouragement throughout her school years and early career, of which she reflects

“only a firm dedication to the goal of an astronomical career – coupled with the conviction, by the end of my first year in college, that physical science was much easier for me than social sciences and humanities – kept me in this field in spite of outside pressures.”

Dr. Roman’s speech is tailored to a college student audience, reflecting on her own journey into science, and highlighting the new opportunities for women to be hired as scientists and engineers in the NASA space program. In order to illustrate the diversity of career roles and journeys available, Dr. Roman shares the stories of several of her female colleagues, including their contributions to science, their path into science, and how they successfully managed to balance their scientific career with societal pressures and home life.

These scientists included: Dr. Marcia Neugebauer, a geophysicist working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who managed and designed equipment on the Mariner spacecraft and Ranger flights (read her 2017 oral history with AIP here); Harriet Malitson of Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), who worked in predicting solar activity and its effects on earth; Eleanor Pressley, (GSFC) who scheduled all the sounding rocket launches at NASA; Ann Bailie, who co-discovered that earth is pear-shaped through analysis of observations from Vanguard I and was honored on national TV; Edith Reed, in the Astrophysics Branch at Goddard working on instrumentation for rockets; Jaylee Burley, a mathematician and astronomer calculating satellite trajectories; Barbara Lunde, a physicist working on spacecraft stabilization systems; and Dr. Jocelyn Gill, who worked closely with Dr. Roman and was responsible for integrating the manned space flight programs with the science programs. 

Many of these women were featured heavily in local news and women’s magazines as the face of career women at NASA, but the features often focused on their appearance and fashion style instead of their professional and scientific achievements, which makes this press release of Dr. Roman’s speech a nice contrast to other press of this era, as it is from the perspective of a colleague and focuses on their scientific achievements. 


Item 6:

Item 6: An Astronomer’s Path to Space [Draft Speech.] Women’s Space Symposium, February 22, 1962. Folder 7, Box 7, Nancy Grace Roman Papers, 1931-1993. Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics. One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740

This is a corrected draft copy of a speech Dr. Roman gave at the Women‘s Space Symposium in Los Angeles, California, in February 1962. This draft shows Dr. Roman’s edits and corrections in her own hand prior to the speech. Like the “Role of Women in the Space Program” speech she would give the following year (Item 5 above), the speech is aimed at young women, and she shares her own personal path to becoming an astronomer and Chief of the Astronomy and Solar Programs at NASA. She also gives practical advice for those considering going to grad school and navigating the field of modern astronomy. This speech is an example of several public outreach talks Dr. Roman gave encouraging women and girls to consider a career in astronomy. In fact, the speech references a Career Day talk at Goucher College, a women’s college in Baltimore, MD, that she gave only days earlier.

Here is an example quote showing some of the corrections done by Dr. Roman regarding her advice to future astronomers:

 “I am often asked how I, a woman, got into a job such as this. The story is a long one. Like most children, at the age of eleven or twelve, I found astronomy interesting. However, unlike the majority, I decided at that time that I wanted to be an astronomer and nothing ever made me change my mind. I realized that to be an astronomer, I would need a great deal of mathematics and physics, and would need a long course of studying, but decided I would aim for this goal; if I was not able to achieve it, I could do something in math or physics instead, probably teaching. [^Although] I majored in astronomy at Swarthmore College, few colleges in this country gave an undergraduate major in astronomy. This is no handicap as graduate schools do not expect you to have had any astronomy before obtaining your B.A., or B.S. degree., but they do expect a good background in mathematics and physics. Even [^ with an astronomy major] I took more [^courses in] mathematics and physics than [^in] astronomy. Without these you will find it difficult to cope with graduate school courses.

The Large Space Telescope

A major focus of the June 5th Trimble Lecture was on the complex decades-long planning, public advocacy, scientific developments, and navigation of science policy and congressional funding it takes for large space telescopes to come to fruition. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, was the first such telescope to be built and Dr. Roman was instrumental in making it a reality. The last two documents to be featured at the lecture show some of the early efforts in the 1970s to get congressional funding for the Hubble Space Telescope, then known as the Large Space Telescope.

Item 7:

Large Space Telescope -- a new tool for science

Item 7: Large Space Telescope – a New Tool for Science. [Conference Proceedings] American Institute of Aeronautics (AIAA) 12th Aerospace Sciences meeting, Washington, D.C. January 30-February 1, 1974. Folder 5, Box 2, Nancy Grace Roman Papers, Addition, 1934-2006. Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics. One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740

This conference proceedings booklet from January 1974 focuses on the scientific potential and capabilities of the then recently proposed Large Space Telescope (LST), better known now as the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Dr. Roman was one of the organizers of this conference, and she presented a paper entitled “LST--The National Space Observatory Concept”. Among the speakers was astronomer Lyman Spitzer, who first proposed the idea of having an optical telescope in space in 1946 and was nicknamed “Father of the Hubble”. Dr. Roman spent nearly 20 years shepherding the space telescope to completion. Her dedication to the project, efforts to secure congressional approval and funding, and advocacy for the telescope and design, start to finish, led to her nickname “Mother of the Hubble.”

Item 8:

The Space Telescope by Robert W. Smith on display at the June 5th Trimble Lecture (left) open to the Superman LST comic.

Item 8: Smith, Robert W. The Space Telescope: A Study of NASA, science, technology, and politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Also on display at the lecture was the book The Space Telescope: A Study of NASA, science, technology, and politics by Robert W. Smith (while this book is not from Dr. Roman’s papers, it is held in the NBL&A collections). The book discusses some of the ways NASA used popular media to help garner public support and interest in the Large Space Telescope in order to convince Congress to allocate the money to fund it. The page on display features a 1972 Superman Comic where Superman saves the day with the help of the Large Space Telescope!

We hope you enjoyed this glimpse at some of these items from the Nancy Grace Roman Papers! To learn more about Dr. Roman and her life, be sure to check out some of the other resources from the Niels Bohr Library & Archives linked below.


Oral History: In August 1980, Dr. Roman sat down with David DeVorkin to do an oral history interview for AIP. You can listen to an excerpt of Dr. Roman discussing the role of politics in government science organization from the interview here and read the full transcript of the interview here.

Dr. Roman was also recently featured in our Ex Libris Universum blog post “Women Leaders in Astronomy”,

We also have:

The Roman Collection in the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives featuring several photographs from her life and career.

Finding Aids to the Nancy Grace Roman archival collections at NBLA:

Other Materials on Nancy Grace Roman at NBLA

For more on Dr. Roman also see her NASA Profile.

About the Author

Karina Cooper

Nancy Roman

Karina Cooper

Karina Cooper is a Librarian at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. She holds a B.A. from Swarthmore College where she studied Classics and Astronomy and a Master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her work at NBLA mainly involves improving the accessibility, discoverability, and accuracy of the library’s collections and catalog. She also enjoys being able to combine her love of physics and ancient languages working with special collections at the Niels Bohr Library and being able to constantly learn new things. Outside of work, her hobbies include playing the violin, reading, and English and Scottish country dancing. One of her favorite books in the collection is The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel.

Caption: Nancy Roman shows Women in Astronomy Exhibit at the Smithsonian, Washington, DC circa 1974.

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