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Reaching for the Stars

Nancy Grace Roman '46

I never seriously considered any occupation other than astronomy. A piece of artwork I did when I was in third grade shows a girl gazing out the window at the night sky, next to a poem about looking at the stars. When I was 11, I organized an astronomy club among my friends. In the dark, clear skies on the edge of Reno, Nev., we met once a week during the summer to learn the constellations.

That third-grade image and poem, in a way, symbolize the meaning that Swarthmore has had for me. At a time when it was not easy for a woman to build a career as a scientist, I found in Swarthmore a place where such dreams could be translated into realities-and also a place that stimulated an interest in a variety of social problems-as well as in the humanities-that has enriched my whole life.

My choice of Swarthmore, and my years there, were influenced by the Second World War. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, I was in the first semester of my junior year in high school. In my accelerated program, I would have enough credits to graduate at the end of the junior year. Many of the girls in our small class in Baltimore (where the best public high schools were, and still are, sexually segregated) wanted to get out early to do war work or start studying for their professions. The school administration agreed-on two conditions: that all of us did it and that we would go to summer school to study a year of chemistry (in 10 weeks, with first- and second-semester chemistry taught simultaneously).

Thus, I started to choose a college earlier than I had expected and was late in applying. Because I had no brothers and had gone to a girl's high school, I wanted to go to a coeducational college. Locally, Johns Hopkins would take women only in night school, and the University of Maryland did not have a good reputation at that time. The fact that travel was difficult during wartime led me to Swarthmore because it was not too far from Baltimore, and it had a reputation for excellence and a highly regarded Astronomy Department. In contrast to the way things work today, I applied only to Swarthmore and never visited the campus or talked to an alumnus. Fortunately, I was accepted, and I have never been sorry.

The College's distribution rules required courses in the humanities and social sciences as well as math and physical science. In freshman year, I took math, astronomy, German, and history. I felt that the reason I managed to get through that year was that I did not have to spend much time studying math and astronomy. This convinced me that I was right to choose astronomy as my major, but my decision did not sit well with Dean Blanshard, who was strongly opposed to women going into science or engineering. I finally got mild encouragement in my junior year when, in lab one day, Dr. Wright said, "I usually try to discourage women from going into science, but I think maybe you'll make it."

I attended the summer session for the first semester of my sophomore year, taking first-year physics at 2 p.m. The class was composed largely of V-12 students (members of the Navy) who had been up since 5:30 a.m., when they were put through military drills. Predictably, the early rising, combined with the summer heat after a large lunch, had a sleep-inducing effect. Dr. Wright recognized the problem. He never said anything, but, near the middle of each class, he arranged some sort of noisy demonstration.

Although my heavy schedule of technical courses left little room for the humanities and social sciences, it was impossible not to get a liberal education at Swarthmore. The four years there left me eager for more. Since then, I have read far more broadly, and participated in groups and lectures encompassing many different interests.

I found graduate school at the University of Chicago easy compared with Swarthmore. I stayed on at the university for six years, teaching, but I recognized that, as a woman, my chances of receiving tenure were small. In 1955, I accepted a position in radio astronomy at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and moved to Washington, D.C., where I have lived ever since. Radio astronomy was new in this country, although it had been developing for several years in the Netherlands, England, and Australia. I had become interested in the structure of the Milky Way and believed that radio astronomy would contribute a lot to this field-but I was too early. In those days, radio astronomers were expected to build their own state-of-the-art instruments. Although I enjoyed both the work and the group of people I was working with, I had no desire to start over as an electronic engineer.

Three years later, NASA was formed, with most of its scientists coming from NRL. I was invited to join the agency to set up a program in space astronomy. I agonized over the decision. I had enjoyed teaching and research and realized that if I took a management position, I was unlikely to get back to either. I had reluctantly left teaching; did I also want to leave research? I didn't, but the opportunity to set up a program that I believed would influence astronomy for 50 years was more than I could resist. Hence, in March 1959, I left NRL for NASA headquarters. The Hubble Space Telescope became an important part of my program.

Although I found people significantly more difficult than stars, I enjoyed the work at NASA. Nevertheless, after 21 years, I was tired of the job, and I decided to take advantage of an early-retirement opportunity. I felt too young to quit working entirely, so I found a part-time position as a consultant to a company supporting projects at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) near Washington. As I wanted more work than that, I went to the Astronomical Data Center at GSFC and asked for a job, saying: "I know astronomical catalogs. If you will teach me computers, I'd like to work for you." Despite this odd approach, I got a job. I learned modern computers largely by using them and stayed there, with increasing hours, until I finally retired in 1998.

As my career shows, the greatest gift I received from Swarthmore was the ability and eagerness to learn new things. The College gave me a good background in the fundamentals of my field that permitted me to understand problems, techniques, and instruments well outside my research experience. I am the only person I know who did not have any English courses in college, but writing seminar papers was a great learning experience. I think my biggest asset in my NASA job was the ability to speak and write easily and well.

Another priceless gift from my college years was a lifelong desire to use my education in the service of others. Retirement has afforded me more time for such activities as teaching courses for high school students and science teachers, lecturing to adults on astronomy, and recording for the blind and dyslexic.

Swarthmore deserves a great deal of credit for the interesting life I have had.

Nancy Grace Roman was chief of the Astronomy and Relativity programs at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.