Editor's Note: Nancy passed away in December 2018 at the age of 93. She sat down a few years ago to answer questions about her amazing career at the forefront of space science.
Where are you from?
I was born in Nashville, Tenn., but I have lived in a number of places. In 1937, I moved to Baltimore, Md. where I attended junior high and high school. I lived there for five years before leaving for college (it was my longest home before college). Since 1955 I have lived in the Washington, DC area.
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
I do not remember exactly when I became interested in astronomy, but I know it was at a very young age. I did organize an astronomy club for my friends at the age of 11. We would meet once a week to learn about the constellations. I did not get involved in space activities until I worked at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) from 1955-1959, and even then only occasionally.
If you enjoy puzzles, science or engineering may be the field for you, because scientific research and engineering is a continuous series of solving puzzles. It is also a continuous process of learning new things, whether you discover them or study the work of others.
How did you end up working in the space program?
A few months after NASA was formed I was asked if I knew anyone who would like to set up a program in space astronomy. I knew that taking on this responsibility would mean that I could no longer do research, but the challenge of formulating a program from scratch that I believed would influence astronomy for decades to come was too great to resist.
What is a Chief of NASA's Astronomy and Relativity Programs?
As the chief of NASA's Astronomy and Relativity Programs I was involved with planning a program of satellites and rockets with the advice of a wide sample of the nation's astronomical community. I also administered a significant program of grants to support the astronomy program in both its execution and the understanding of its results.
What I liked most about being the chief of these programs was the many contacts I had with researchers that were on the forefront of astronomical research and with the broad astronomical community in this country and abroad. I retired from NASA Headquarters a number of years ago, and I have since retired from several part time positions.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
One of my favorite moments in my career was when I realized that I had discovered something important that no one had ever suspected. Upon careful inspection of low dispersion spectra of bright stars similar to the Sun, I noticed that compared to the strength of the hydrogen lines, the strengths of the lines of other elements varied from star to star. When I divided the stars into two groups on the basis of line strengths I noticed that the stars with the stronger lines moved around the center of the Milky Way in circular orbits similar to that of the sun. The others tended to move in more elliptical orbits and to stray farther from the plane of the galaxy. This was the first indication that common stars were not all the same age. These other elements are made in stars and hence increase in abundance as stars die.
Who inspired you?
It was probably my parents who inspired me most. My father was a scientist and answered my scientific questions, while my mother took me on walks and showed me birds and plants. She also took me out at night and showed me the constellations and the aurora.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
My career was quite unusual, so my main advice to someone interested in a career similar to my own is to remain open to change and new opportunities. I like to tell students that the jobs I took after my Ph.D. were not in existence only a few years before. New opportunities can open up for you in this ever changing field.
What do you do for fun?
I attend lectures (on a wide variety of subjects). I also attend concerts and plays. I love to travel. I am active in both my church and the American Association of University Women, and I do a variety of volunteer activities.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
If you enjoy puzzles, science or engineering may be the field for you, because scientific research and engineering is a continuous series of solving puzzles. It is also a continuous process of learning new things, whether you discover them or study the work of others. Science, like all jobs, has its share of drudgery and boredom, but basically it is fun.