Speaking of Hubble...

A Day of Celebration and Inspiration

August 16, 2012 by Mangala Sharma
A young boy watches himself on the Webb Telescope booth’s infrared camera at the Intrepid Museum’s Space Fest.

A young boy watches himself on the Webb Telescope booth’s infrared camera at the Intrepid Museum’s Space Fest.

Imagine flying in an airship that weighed some 150,000 pounds, could land like an airplane but needed a rocket to launch, and could fly both in and beyond Earth’s atmosphere. You’d belong to a select group of only 355 individuals who have ever flown on such a vehicle: NASA’s Space Shuttle.

Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis — between 1981 and 2011, these five Space Shuttles ferried the 355 astronauts and a huge number of satellites into low-Earth orbit. These shuttles orbited the Earth at altitudes of just a few hundred miles, typically; think Florida or Colorado standing up vertically. But they went round and round more than 21,000 times in total, racking up more than half a billion miles — the distance between the Sun and Jupiter. Thanks to the shuttle, we’ve built the International Space Station, seen astronauts perform feats of daring and delicateness in free fall, and launched and serviced the Hubble Space Telescope.

Another (actually, the first) shuttle, Enterprise, never flew in space but was the prototype used to prove that the vehicle could glide and land successfully, and to test how well the shuttle carrier aircraft worked in concert.

The shuttle era is now in the past; NASA is focusing on newer and more advanced vehicles to launch scientific satellites and carry humans to nearby asteroids and Mars. The retired shuttles are (or will be) on permanent public display at a variety of locations nationwide: Discovery at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near the US capital, Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Now, the American public and visitors to these cities can get up close and personal with the orbiters, and experience something of their remarkable history.

Enterprise had been on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, and was transported to New York City in early summer 2012. The Intrepid Museum crafted a protective pavilion on its flight deck for this pioneering spacecraft, and plans to build a more permanent exhibit hall for it. It is truly moving to behold one incredible machine resting atop another, in the company of dozens of naval aircraft, all carrying historic legacies, and with the New York skyline as their backdrop.

To celebrate the shuttle pavilion’s opening to the public, the Intrepid Museum held a “space fest” between July 19 and July 22, 2012. And NASA was there to join the celebration. Dozens of exhibit booths showcased NASA’s aeronautics, space exploration and science missions and programs. There were models of the Mars mission Curiosity (that landed on the red planet just last week!), solar telescopes to safely view our nearest and dearest star, space suits in which people posed for pictures, and other cool exhibits. And thousands of museum visitors mobbed these exhibits, staying to chat excitedly about science and space exploration.

Several of my colleagues from STScI and NASA Goddard staffed the James Webb Space Telescope booth. We had a 1:20 scale model of the telescope. We showed videos of its mirrors and instruments being built, explained how the solar panels would unfold in space, and discussed the cool science to be done by Webb. Since Webb is an infrared (IR) telescope, we had set up a commercial IR camera and large display, so that visitors could see themselves in this “invisible light.”

All warm, dense bodies emit electromagnetic radiation. The temperature of the body determines the color or, equivalently, the wavelength of the radiation. Humans and other land animals emit IR radiation, not the visible light that our eyes can see. IR light has wavelengths that are too long for our eyes to detect, but specialized IR cameras or some regular digital cameras equipped with long-wavelength-sensitive CCDs can capture our thermal emission and show us our “temperature map” in false color.

Our IR camera at the Space Fest was a big hit. Visitors walking by stopped in their tracks to see familiar yet strangely colored versions of themselves on the monitor. They exclaimed about actually seeing — rather than feeling — how cold their noses or hands were in contrast to the tops of their heads. They rubbed their hands and saw the resulting warmth show up as a brighter glow on the IR camera. We offered them fun activities to try: hold an ice cube and see how that changed what their hands looked like; blow-dry their hair and make it seem like it was aflame. Mothers brought their kids, and kids dragged their parents, to “see” themselves in a new light. Visitor who spoke no English exchanged delighted grins and connected with us without needing words. And all this despite the overcast skies and cold rain that threatened to dampen the first two days of the Space Fest.

Outreach events like this take a lot of time and effort to organize. It’s all made worthwhile by the excitement people find in connecting with each other and with the wonders of the universe through the incredible journey of exploration that is science.