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Who was the Mother of Hubble? (with Jennifer Sommer)

Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, NASA's first chief of astronomy, poses in 1966 with a model of what would become the Hubble Space Telescope

Dean and children's book author Jennifer Sommer explores the fascinating story of Nancy Grace Roman, known as the "Mother of Hubble." Jennifer delves into her new kids' book, "Her Eyes Were on the Stars," and takes the listeners on a journey through Roman's pivotal role in the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope. New episodes release every other Friday!

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Looking Up is transcribed using a combination of AI speech recognition and human editors. It may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Jennifer Sommer: I'm trying to concentrate on the Hubble though since because I think children will know what that is.

Nancy Grace Roman: Yes.

Jennifer Sommer: And I'm wondering if you could describe in a, in a way they would understand what, what is the Hubble Telescope.

Dean Regas: So, I know you've heard me talk a lot about the Hubble Space Telescope on the show. I know, maybe you're like, Dean. Okay, I get it. Enough about the Hubble Telescope. We know you love the Hubble Telescope. We'll send you cards and presents and all that stuff. But listen, astronomers wouldn't be talking about this thing all the time if it wasn't really cool.

Nancy Grace Roman: I guess that's it. The astronomers really wanted it.

Dean Regas: That's Nancy Grace Roman, the person who is known as the mother of the Hubble Telescope. And she is the subject of this new kids book, Her Eyes Were on the Stars, from Jennifer Sommer. From the studios of Cincinnati Public Radio, I'm your host Dean Regas, and this is Looking Up.

A show that takes you deep into the cosmos, or just to the telescope in your backyard, to learn more about what makes this amazing universe of ours so great. So the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990.

[Brent Spiner Archival Audio]: At NASA Space Center in Florida, aboard Space shuttle Discovery

Dean Regas: The telescope itself is massive. It's, you know, the size of a school bus. And it was launched in the back of the Space Shuttle way back when the Space Shuttle was working.

And so, this telescope has just had this longevity. And to get a telescope built, number one is something that takes Years, decades, longer.

[Brent Spiner Archival Audio]: As centuries passed, telescopes became larger and more powerful, able to observe far beyond the limits of our eyes.

Dean Regas: Getting Congress to fund it is also incredibly difficult.

And it turns out to be one of the most amazing scientific instruments ever created. Well, Jennifer, thanks so much for joining me today.

Jennifer Sommer: Thank you for inviting me.

Dean Regas: Well, I'm excited to talk about your book and you know, so what kind of got you into this as the subject matter and, you know, where did your passion for astronomy start?

Jennifer Sommer: I was writing for children children's librarian, looking for subjects. And at that time, STEM was very big, getting very big. Biographies of women who were unknown was very big. And I happened to be watching Nova on PBS. Right now on Nova.

And it was about the Hubble telescope. And they mentioned the mother of Hubble, who I'd never heard of.

And they said Nancy Grace Roman. I've never heard of her. So that started my interest, and I started researching her online. And I thought, oh, well, this could, this could be a good subject for a children's book. You know, she's not really known. But I knew she was probably getting kind of old. Because she was working in 1959, I saw at NASA.

And so I started looking her up and saw, Yeah, she was listed on the NASA website and she had an email. So I called her and we had our first telephone interview.

Well, thank you again so much for talking to me. I'm trying to write

a children's picture book.

Nancy Grace Roman: Yes, that's what you said in your, in your letter.

Dean Regas: And so, when you talked to her, how old was she? ?

Jennifer Sommer: She was 91 at that point.

Is it okay to call you Nancy Grace?

Nancy Grace Roman: Yes.

Dean Regas: How did she become the mother of the Hubble Space Telescope? Because that's a big title. What was her role in this?

Jennifer Sommer: Her role,

Now I've heard that

you've been called the mother of Hubble. Is this true?

Nancy Grace Roman: Yes.

Jennifer Sommer: Well, when she got to NASA, she asked all the astronomers what they wanted from her.

Did they really want to accomplish? And they said they wanted a space telescope.

Which she knew at that time was impossible.

Nancy Grace Roman: Well I knew how much trouble we were having building a telescope. Building a satellite to carry a six inch telescope.

Jennifer Sommer: We didn't have rockets that got off the ground at that point. And I think Sputnik had just gotten into the air.

Did you tell him they were nuts?

Nancy Grace Roman: No.

Jennifer Sommer: No?

Nancy Grace Roman: I just didn't do anything.

Jennifer Sommer: You just didn't do anything.

Nancy Grace Roman: I just decided to ignore it. Until I decided I couldn't ignore it anymore.

Jennifer Sommer: You gotta do something about it.

Nancy Grace Roman: And then, in 1965, there was another summer study, this time at Woods Hole, in Massachusetts.

Jennifer Sommer: Private companies were starting to work on a space telescope, but she didn't like their ideas.

Several of the aerospace companies came in with proposals.

Dean Regas: So this was something that, you know, some private space companies were thinking of, well, you have to have somebody out there with it. Is that kind of what she was fighting against? Is that you have to have an observer, you have to have an observer looking through the eyepiece and, and she was. thinking, no, you can't do it that way.

Jennifer Sommer: That's exactly it. She, she thought that was completely the backwards way of thinking about it.

Nancy Grace Roman: We were trying to get rid of the atmosphere and you can't, can't really send a man up without an atmosphere. And the other reason is that a man's going to wiggle because astronomical objects, other than the sun are faint.

We need long exposures. And I don't know any man who can sit, or woman, who can sit still for a half hour without moving even a finger.

Dean Regas: Well, and I love it because kids sometimes, they, they think of telescopes and they see pictures of the Hubble telescope, and very rarely, but still occasionally, they'll say, well, where's the person?

How do, how do you see through it? How do you see through it? I'm like, no, it comes down to us from up above and they send us the signals. And they're like, oh, okay. Yeah, yeah. They, they get it pretty fast. So yeah, there was questions of who was going to build it, I guess. And so private company versus NASA, and it just. NASA seemed to be the right fit.

Nancy Grace Roman: At that point I better jump in and at least let the aerospace companies spend their money on something that made sense.

Jennifer Sommer: So this is when she organized engineers from NASA and the astronomers, got them all together to come up with a design.

Nancy Grace Roman: Had them sit down together and work out something that The astronomers thought would do what they needed.

Jennifer Sommer: And it took many, many years. And during this time she's testing satellites and they're working on a design for the Hubble. And once they had a design, the big thing was getting Congress to approve funding.

Dean Regas: I know it's, it's always. It's so difficult with these long term space projects because you have to get Congress to agree to this.

And this is something that, you know, 10 years in the planning to do. And so you get a congressperson that may or may not be there for 10 years to vote for something in 10 years. That's quite an accomplishment.

Jennifer Sommer: And I think it got canceled several times. The funding got canceled several times. Congress was a problem, I take it.

Nancy Grace Roman: Well, Congress controls the money, so In that way, it's always a problem.

Dean Regas: It kind of sounds a little like a pipe dream, in a way. If you think back to then and say, Oh, we're going to have a telescope in space, and it's going to do all this stuff, and it's going to be above the atmosphere, and it can take multiple day exposures.

So, yeah, what do you think, yeah, like, her, her Her big fights were ?

Jennifer Sommer: She told me they had many, many dinners with Congress. And she kept telling them how important this would be to science. So I think, oh, they had questions like, Why, why can't you just use the telescopes on Earth?

They didn't understand what the benefit would be to have it above the atmosphere. So a lot of it, I think, was just, um, teaching them science. Teaching how a telescope would work. And then, also, that this hadn't been done, it's gonna cost a lot. And then, of course, when it was ready to go and it was funded and it was built we had the Challenger accident.

[Challenger Explosion Archival Audio]: Looks like a couple of the solid rocket boosters Blew away from the side of the shuttle in an explosion.

Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.

We have no downlink.

Nancy Grace Roman: So, so there was a three year gap.

Jennifer Sommer: The Hubble had to go into storage for three years.

Nancy Grace Roman: Simply because NASA wasn't flying anything.

Jennifer Sommer: . So that's more money.

Why were you convinced to fight for it for so long?

Nancy Grace Roman: Well, because I realized that it was something that astronomers had wanted for most of the century. And that it clearly would do an important job that could not be done from the ground. And, I guess that's it. The astronomers really wanted it very much so it was, it was clearly going to be a useful instrument.

Jennifer Sommer: And for that accomplishment of getting it designed and for getting it funded, she became known as Mother of Hubble.

Dean Regas: Well, out of the legacy of Hubble, I mean, just speaking personally, I, I always say that it should go down as one of the greatest. scientific instruments ever made. I mean, just the sheer longevity of it. And but, you know, it just, it does make you feel like, all right, well, she was a, she was a still a she was an astronomer, but still a human, that she still cared about this telescope.

Like, was it going to grow up to be a good telescope? It, to me, it is-

Jennifer Sommer: and it's lasted well longer than they expected and still going. It's what, 33 years now?

Dean Regas: Yeah, I think something like that.

Jennifer Sommer: Are you still surprised that it's in space and it's. It's still sending back images?

Nancy Grace Roman: No. Once it's operating successfully, it can continue to operate for a long time.

Dean Regas: The plus is Nancy Grace Roman got to live to see the telescope go up there for a while. Like, so she got to see the real benefits from this telescope.

Jennifer Sommer: I think one thing was she just wanted to make sure it was worth what she said. It would do what she said it would do.

Is there anything you'd still love for the Hubble to answer?

For you?

Nancy Grace Roman: That's a good question. I haven't thought about it. I guess the question that astronomers are interested in is

there's no way of observing it. But after that, how did galaxies begin? How did stars begin? Did stars come first or did galaxies come first? That type of thing.

Jennifer Sommer: I think she, I asked her if she was still watching all the pictures come in and she said, oh yes. She was keeping track. When I met her, and she was 91, she might have been 92 at that point, she was still giving talks to kids at school and to astronomy groups.

And yeah, she was still following all that stuff, so I'm, I'm sure she got a few answers, but was very curious about others.

Do you have any words of encouragement for young girls who might

want to follow your footsteps?

Nancy Grace Roman: First, if you're, if you're really set on it, don't let anybody tell you you can't do it. You can. If you really want to, you can do it. And you've got, you're probably going to have to be stubborn. It's quite as hard to for a girl to become a scientist today as it was in my generation. But you're still going to be facing obstacles. It's still a man's field. Secondly, be flexible. If you start down one way and it doesn't work, be willing to try something else.

Dean Regas: Well, flexibility and stubbornness together. That's a tough combo.

Jennifer Sommer: Yeah, she, she said she was stubborn her whole life, which I think is probably how she got through school. Arguing, you know, that she didn't want to take Latin, she wanted to take math. I think that was just part of her.

Dean Regas: You were definitely taken by her, weren't you? You were you were very moved by her.

Jennifer Sommer: Oh, I, I wish I had had more time with her.

Dean Regas: Wow. Are there some moments from that conversation that really stand out?

Jennifer Sommer: I think finding out she was talking about her childhood. How did you discover astronomy and what made you fall in love with it? How her mother I didn't especially encourage her to go into science.

Nancy Grace Roman: I blamed her. She

showed me the

Jennifer Sommer: She said she talked to her mother about it later in her life, and her mother denied it. And she goes, but you know-

Nancy Grace Roman: Well, I told her that I thought she

gave me plenty of subtle hints that she was really questioning it.

Jennifer Sommer: And you know, she just had these little bits of humor that I liked. I tried to get a third interview, and that day she was talking to some astronomy group. And she died soon after that, so I never got a third interview with her.

But, we did email back and forth, and she did go over my manuscript when I was writing it and correct things. We did have a, a nice little relationship there at the end.

Alright, I'm, I'm out of questions. I'm trying to think of anything I may have missed. I wanted to,

Nancy Grace Roman: yes, go ahead. Go ahead. I was just I was just going to say there's no reason why you can't call again if you have some other questions.

Jennifer Sommer: Oh, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.

Nancy Grace Roman: You're welcome. Alright, bye bye. Have a good day.

Jennifer Sommer: Thank you.

Dean Regas: Well, with such a long and storied career, how did you put it all together in a book? Tell us a little bit about your, your book for for kids and probably for adults, too.

Jennifer Sommer: That was difficult. And trying to pull out the most important parts, trying not to make it too scientific, her quotes in there was important to me.

I wanted it to be as accurate as possible using her words. And I did a lot of research. So there's a lot of bibliography and timeline at the end. If you're, if you're interested in more about the Hubble, because I didn't really get into the Hubble itself, just up to that point where it had been approved.

Dean Regas: Wow, well it's a it's a great great telling of this, and I can, it, this is, goes to tell everybody doing interviews, record them. Like, it was so great to hear her actual voice, like what a great extra bonus for that. Thanks for bringing

that in.

Jennifer Sommer: Thank goodness, I, I had the foresight to do that, and when we had our first telephone interview, I had my little recorder, it was an old fashioned recorder, and I put it down next to my phone and had the speaker on it, and I remember saying, I hope this works, and she laughed, and she said, well, that's the hope we all have, isn't it?

Dean Regas: Well, Jennifer, thanks so much for joining me today and talking about your new book Her Eyes Were on the Stars, Nancy Grace Roman, The Mother of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Jennifer Sommer: Thanks so much.

Dean Regas: So, last thing I want you all to do here is after you finish listening, I want you to go on the old internet and look up some Hubble Space Telescope pictures.

I think the first one I want you to look for is the Eagle Nebula. So just do a search, Eagle Nebula picture Hubble Telescope, and you'll see this amazing picture of this star forming region. This is a nebula that's creating new stars like a giant star factory. And you see these pillars of gas and dust, and you see all these great rainbow colors of blue and yellow and red.

And nevermind that those aren't the actual colors and they Photoshop those colors, but we're going to skip over that because I want you to look at that picture because it's amazing because those pillars of gas. are the size of multiple, multiple solar systems. So they're going to be making lots and lots of stars.

And so that picture is when I was starting as an astronomer. So in the early 2000s, that was the picture of space. So check that out. And I know people out there, you're saying, well. James Webb's telescope took a picture of that too. It's a lot better and a lot clearer. Yeah, okay, maybe. Just look at the Hubble one.

Just put them side by side and you're like, which one's prettier? Now, the other picture that I want you to think about is, well actually there's two more. Because the, one of the coolest things that the Hubble did that I don't think that James Webb has done yet is take pictures of colliding galaxies.

These are, you know, humongous structures of millions to billions and billions of stars running into each other. And when I saw these, I was like, wait, what? Galaxies can collide like a Milky Way can run into something. And then the final one is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field picture. This is the picture with the longest exposure of the deepest part of space.

So basically, the telescope aimed at an empty part on the map. There is no stars, there's no galaxies on this part of the chart for astronomers, and they aimed the Hubble telescope at it to see what came back. And after this unbelievably long exposure, there's this picture of little dots and little swirls.

In one little picture, it captured five to ten thousand galaxies. So that's my homework for you. Check out those three pictures, Eagle Nebula, Galaxies Colliding, and Ultra Deep Field from the Hubble Space Telescope. I love giving homework on this thing. We got to do this. We got to do a segment. Let's just call this Dean's Homework Assignment.

Go on the internet, check this stuff out. Have a question or comment for the show? You can get in touch with us at lookingupatwvxu. org. And be sure to follow 917WVXU on Instagram and TikTok for exclusive content from the show that you won't want to miss. Looking up with Dean Regas is a production of Cincinnati Public Radio.

Ella Rowen is our show producer, audio engineer, and Hubble space janitor. Wait, we're sending you up there to clean up again? It probably needs it. It's been a while since I've been up there. Marshall Verbsky provided additional technical support and fixed all of the lenses in the office to NASA specs.

Our theme song is Possible Light by Ziv Moran. I'm Dean Regas, and keep looking up!