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NASA began empowering female scientists and engineers more than 20 years before Women’s History Month became an official national celebration.  

Several of the most notable female scientists and engineers in the 20th century put their skills to work on missions at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Their work significantly influenced study in their fields and at NASA.

Women who stand out from the list include Nancy Grace Roman, widely acknowledged to be the mother of Hubble Space Telescope; Marjorie Townsend, an engineer and the first woman in the U.S. space program to manage a mission; and Joanne Simpson, the first American woman to earn a doctorate in meteorology, who developed the theory, now verified, of “hot towers” within cloud systems.

Nancy Grace Roman

During her years at NASA, Roman set in motion the age of space telescopes, which continues today as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope – the largest space observatory ever built – prepares for its 2018 launch.

Roman took a job with NASA in February 1959, several months after the agency’s official inception. It was an age when female astronomers performed mostly menial tasks, such as cataloguing stars, Roman said in aSeptember 2000 oral history given to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. But NASA officials hired her as the fledgling agency's first chief of astronomy and tasked her with shaping the astronomy program.

“I finally decided that the challenge of starting with a completely clean slate and mapping out a program that would influence astronomy for 50 years was just more than I could turn down,” Roman said in that interview.

She helped get the first space-based astronomy missions at NASA off the ground – literally – in the 1960s and 1970s, but more famously, Roman set up the Hubble Space Telescope program. The resulting space telescope is widely acknowledged to have changed the astronomy textbooks, and is approaching 26 years in orbit in April 2016. Roman finished her career at Goddard where she served as the manager of the Astronomical Data Center. Employees at the center contributed to the astronomy of the future, digitizing astronomical catalogs, ensuring they were consistent, reformatting them for better usability and more.

Marjorie Townsend

Townsend and Roman both helped launch groundbreaking astronomical observatories in their time, but they did so from opposite approaches. While Roman was an astronomer, Townsend was an engineer and the first woman to assume a project manager role in the U.S. space program. She worked on the Small Astronomy Satellite (SAS) series project, launching three satellites between 1970 and 1979.

Townsend was responsible for all aspects of the design, construction and launch process of the three spacecraft, which observed the universe in the X-ray, gamma-ray, ultraviolet, visible and infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

SAS-1, also known as Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom, became NASA’s first satellite fully dedicated to observing the X-ray sky. The observations SAS-2 took in the gamma-ray spectrum provided the first information about the gamma-ray sky. SAS-3 provided precise enough X-ray observations to pave the way for observations by optical telescopes, and located a quasar using X-ray emissions for the first time.

In 1973, Townsend was one of six women to win the Federal Woman’s Award, a nationwide award to give public recognition to women in federal careers, attract attention to their work and help recruit women to the government sector.

Joanne Simpson

The first American woman to earn a doctorate degree in meteorology in 1949, Simpson spent more than 30 years of her career at Goddard. She focused on cloud system research, particularly her hot towers hypothesis, in which she surmised that warm, moist air rising off the ocean created soaring clouds that fed tropical storm systems.

Simpson served in a number of roles, including project scientist on the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, a joint mission between NASA and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency to study rainfall in the tropics that helped scientists learn more about hot towers.

TRMM ended in April 2015, and scientists at Goddard today are using a successor mission, the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory satellite, launched in 2014, to continue those studies.

These are only a few of the women who have played a significant role in NASA’s pursuit of knowledge. The ranks of women driving the agency’s mission forward continue to expand, as they have for more than 58 years.

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