WASHINGTON, D.C. (TIP): “What are the odds of a girl child born in the newly formed Republic of India to become a Program Scientist at NASA,” said Dr. Hashima Hasan reminiscing about her early school days during a recent NASA podcast interview. The words of her Class VI teacher in Loreto Convent, Lucknow, that they could do anything if worked hard made a big impact on her. Loreto Convent—an educational institution established in 1872 for girls—had recently allowed girls to take science subjects for their studies. She took the challenge and got interested in science. She was inspired by the scientific career of her great-uncle, Dr. Husain Zaheer, who was the Director-General of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and later her aunt Dr. Najma Zaheer, a renowned biological scientist. Hashima recalled that her mother had unwavering faith in her capabilities and she encouraged her to pursue her ambitions. The inspiration to pursue space science was born when, in 1957, her grandmother gathered the entire family in the backyard of her home in the early dawn to watch Sputnik pass by. It was very fascinating to see the Sputnik in the clear sky.
Hashima completed a B.Sc. degree at Lucknow University, securing the fifth position, and went on to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and obtained an M.Sc. (Physics) degree securing first place and a gold medal. She started a Ph. D. program under the tutelage of the legendary Dr. Zillur Rahman Khan. After completing the pre-requisite degree of M. Phil., she took the bold step of applying to the University of Oxford. With encouragement from Dr. Rais Ahmad, Head, Department of Physics, she applied and received a Commonwealth Scholarship and joined the University of Oxford, U.K. Three years later, with a D.Phil. (Theoretical Nuclear Physics) in hand, she returned to India as a post-doctoral scholar at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay. With scholars like Dr. J. V. Narlikar, and Dr. Obaid Siddiqi, TIFR was a haven of intellectual thought. After two intense years at TIFR, she secured a faculty position at the Physics Department, University of Poona, Pune. She was the only non-Marathi-speaking faculty member. The atmosphere at Poona University was welcoming, respectful, academic, idyllic, and she enjoyed teaching the post-graduate students.
Her life took an important turn when her family arranged her marriage and she moved to Raleigh, NC, joining her husband, Dr. Aftab Ansari. She pursued her passion for Nuclear Physics at Duke University, Durham NC, switching gears two years later to Atmospheric Science when she was awarded a Resident Research Associateship by the U.S. National Research Council.
A year later, they were back in India, this time with an infant son. Her first experience as a working mother came when she started research in Nuclear Physics at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, Mumbai. When they returned to the USA with their second son, her journey took a turn towards NASA.
Arriving in Baltimore, she sought research opportunities and was hired by the newly formed Space Telescope Science Institute to write the simulation software for the optics of the soon-to-be-launched Hubble Space Telescope and its science instruments. Never one to turn down a challenge, she once again switched gears from Nuclear Physics – this time towards optics and astronomy.
Little did she know that within a few years she would be using her software to analyze the optical error of the Hubble mirror and would be assigned the responsibility of keeping Hubble in the best focus till a fix was designed.
Once Hubble was repaired after the first servicing mission, she took advantage of an opportunity at NASA Headquarters, Washington DC, to work as a Senior Scientist. Thus started her career in science management. There was never a dull moment at NASA Headquarters. Every second keeps one intellectually on the edge – whether it is involved in the strategic planning for the next flight mission; the solicitation, review, and selection of new technology, research program, payloads on sounding rockets and balloons; the next Explorer mission; direction of the data archives; or management of advisory committees and communication with educators and the public.
Hashima has managed every aspect of Astrophysics during her 27 years+ services at NASA Headquarters. One of her significant responsibilities is that of the Deputy Program Scientist, James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Her responsibilities included oversight during the mission development phase to make sure that the science requirements were being met, and the best science observation program selected for the operation phase. She is currently serving as a spokesperson for JWST to the media and delivering invited talks to school students.
After many years of hard work with its partners, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, NASA launched JSWT from the European spaceport of Kourou in French Guiana on 25th December 2021. The telescope equipped with multiple instruments will be positioned at a spot called Lagrange Point 2, 1.5million km from earth or more than four times beyond the moon. Its mission stretches from five to 15 years. As Deputy Program Scientist for the JWST, she was part of the team on board when the world’s largest and most powerful telescope was launched. This was an exhilarating moment for her, the entire JWST team, and indeed the entire world. Once in operation, JWST will show the wonders of the Universe never seen before. The world is eagerly waiting for those first science images. Hashima is gazing at the night skies at her home in the USA with the same wonder that she gazed at it as a little girl in Lucknow – it is the same sky with the same mysteries waiting for all of us to discover.
A few selected videos.