This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope, one of NASA’s Great Observatories in collaboration with the European Space Agency. Launched in April 1990, Hubble has emerged as one of the most celebrated as well as most important scientific tools ever constructed.
NASA can boast thousands of publications in peer reviewed journals and countless announcements in scientific conferences based on the telescope’s data. But Hubble did not only revolutionise astronomy research; it also placed public outreach at the heart of the mission. With a strong public outreach team, the wider public has been drawn into the fascinating science of astronomy in a variety of ways.
Hubble and its images are everywhere – as screen wallpaper, in magazines, on stamps, music CD covers and promotional material. They have inspired artists, fashion designers and advertisers alike.
Admittedly, Hubble has acted as an ambassador for astronomy and has captured the imagination of the public in an unprecedented way, but how has this been achieved?
All outreach activities are co-ordinated by the Office of Public Outreach (OPO), which was designed as an integral part of the Hubble mission from the very beginning. Although OPO started off as a mere news type organisation, it gradually grew to incorporate education and developed an internet platform as a direct channel for communication with the public. They were an early adopter of the internet, creating and eventually establishing an effective platform for communicating science, even before the internet became such a powerful tool. The OPO website offers a wealth of resources to the public, astronomers, science communicators, media outlets and teachers.
The success of the Hubble outreach and education undoubtedly lies in the diverse skills and background of the people who make up the OPO. Astronomers, journalists, graphic designers, teachers, video producers, photographers and computer programmers work together to produce high quality material and respond in timely fashion to media requests.
However, it is the powerful images of the cosmos which have touched the public in an unprecedented way. By actively sharing the Hubble images, the OPO has, for the first time, brought the aesthetic beauty of astronomical objects to the general public, while at the same time creating a database of useful resources that tells the history of the Universe.
The role of the OPO proved critical at the start of the mission, when to everyone’s disappointment the long-awaited Hubble images were blurry. The initial crisis was turned into a success story in a masterly way by using a first-class communication strategy. Following the initial negative press, the story was conveyed as Hubble suffering from “myopia”, which would be treated by “corrective glasses”. The “glasses” came in the form of an instrument (COSTAR) which in turn would correct the optics of the flawed mirror. In the meantime, the public could get a glimpse of the capabilities of the mission.
The flawed images were revealing amazing views of the universe, and everybody – scientists and the public – was anticipating the sharp clear images of the corrected Hubble. The installation of COSTAR in 1993 by a team of astronauts received huge media coverage, and NASA demonstrated that they could respond successfully to a crisis of this scale.
The Hubble mission has established a model for subsequent ΝΑSΑ and ESA missions, with all the major projects incorporating an outreach and education office. Projects in other scientific disciplines follow suit with funding for outreach and education. A good example is the switching on of CERN’s Large Hydron Collider, which not only attracted huge media interest but also generated public awareness about the science behind the project.
Featured image credit: MarcelClemens via Shutterstock
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