Speak Softly and Carry a Knitting Needle: Sharing Stories of Nancy Grace Roman on Campus

Alycia Weinberger (left) and Nancy Grace Roman (right) meet on the Earth and Planets Laboratory campus after an astronomy seminar. Roman had just signed Weinberger’s Lego Women of NASA set. Photo Credit: Adriana Kuehnel
Alycia Weinberger (left) and Nancy Grace Roman (right) meet on the Earth and Planets Laboratory campus after an astronomy seminar. Roman had just signed Weinberger’s Lego Women of NASA set. Photo Credit: Adriana Kuehnel
Friday, May 22, 2020 

On May 20, 2020, NASA announced that the new Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is planned to launch sometime in the mid-2020s, will be named after Nancy Grace Roman. Roman was a pioneer in astronomy and astrophysics, was the first female executive and first Chief of Astronomy at NASA, and is widely known as the “mother” of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. She was also a friend of Carnegie’s Vera Rubin and the Earth and Planets Laboratory astronomy program.

Vera Rubin
Nancy Roman (far right) attends a Carnegie Evening event in 1988. From left to right: Unknown, Vera Rubin, Wendy Freedman, Sandy Faber, Allison Campbell, Nancy Roman.

Until her passing in December, 2018, Roman was a welcome attendee at many of our campus’ weekly seminars, in which visiting astronomers presented their latest research. During her time on our campus, many of our scientists learned that seeing Roman in their audience meant you had to be on your “A-game.”

According to Carnegie astrophysicist Alan Boss, “Nancy was known for knitting quietly during the talks and then asking the speaker a perceptive question.”

“That got their attention!” mused Boss.

Another Carnegie astrophysicist Alycia Weinberger remembers one seminar in particular that was serving double duty as part of a job application process for one unfortunate presenter. According to Weinberger, “Roman asked a question about an image that was on the very first slide. I think the speaker was only showing it to have a pretty picture, not to make a scientific point. When Nancy pressed him on it, and he couldn't say exactly what the image was. He got flummoxed and it destroyed his rhythm for the rest of the talk!”

Weinberger continues, “We joked after that, that for fairness, we should have her at all of our job talks or none of them!”

Carnegie cosmochemist Larry Nittler recalled his own experience on the receiving end of Roman’s questioning when he tweeted, “Hardest questions I ever got at a seminar came from Dr. Roman soon after I arrived at the Earth and Planets Laboratory as a postdoc. Feel lucky to have known this amazing person and scientist for many years and this is a wonderful tribute.”

Weinberger relayed yet another story of Roman’s unflappable poise and intellect at a local astronomy meeting, “Not long after I came to Carnegie, I saw her quietly tat lace at a National Capital Area Astronomy meeting, while the much less knowledgeable men around her ignored her sensible suggestion, prattled on, and eventually came to the solution themselves.” Weinberger continues, “I guess by that time she had so much experience she could just let it go, but I was furious on her behalf!”

Ultimately, Roman was a visionary and we are privileged to have had her as a visitor to our campus for so many years. Her foresight and leadership brought a new age of astronomy. It is only fitting that the next generation of space telescope will carry her name into the future of astronomy and space exploration.

About the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope

The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope—Roman Telescope for short—is a new NASA space telescope slated to launch in the mid-2020s. Similar to Hubble, it is designed to answer essential questions about dark energy, find and image exoplanets, and explore infrared astrophysics.

The Roman Space Telescope’s 2.4-meter mirror is the same size as Hubble’s, but with 100 times greater view. This will allow for large area surveys at a much faster rate than the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, the telescope’s coronagraph will allow astronomers to block out light from stars in order to perform high contrast imaging and spectroscopy of nearby exoplanets. 

Carnegie astronomer Alan Boss chairs the Independent Review Team charged with oversight of the Roman Telescope’s coronagraph and starshade. The starshade, intended to fly in concert with the telescope, will allow the telescope to detect and study more exoplanets than would be possible with the Roman Telescope’s coronagraph alone.