You know you’ve made it when people know you by your first name alone.
There’s Cher. Beyoncé. Ozzie. Angelina. Lebron. Oprah.
Add to that list “Hubble.”
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is more than just a famous telescope. It is a household word, known to people of all walks of life, of all ages, and all levels of scientific literacy. Very few can compete with Hubble in name recognition, and its cultural impact is comparable to the Apollo moon landings.
In the past 25 years, Hubble has become, in essence, a superstar.
Musicians love Hubble. The band Pearl Jam has borrowed a famous Hubble snapshot, the Hourglass Nebula, for the cover of their 2000 album “Binaural.” This haunting nebula has also found its way into videogames, the film Angels and Demons, and onto the front cover of National Geographic. While you may not know the Carina Nebula by its name, but you might recognize its image as the album cover of “Andromeda” by the California Guitar Trio. U2 used images of the V838 Monocerotis light echo in their 2009 music video “Get On your Boots.”
Hubble is also a movie star.
The telescope made a cameo in the 2013 film, Gravity for the sole purpose of being destroyed: Director Alfonso Cuarón obliterated the cherished icon while it was being repaired by astronauts in his movie. The vivid backgrounds in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy are reminiscent of Hubble’s colorful photographs; in many scenes, outer space is alive with nebula-like swirling masses of red, purple, and gold. In comparison, many films that were released before Hubble—like the first three installments ofStar Wars in 1977, 1980 and 1983—show space as mostly black sky with a few scattered stars. Hubble’s discoveries have transformed the silver screen, together with the public’s view of space: from black and void, to colorful and beautiful.
Hubble’s photos have become so infused with our culture that they pop up in everyday places like T-shirts, leggings, and desktop backgrounds. Even snowboards are known to bear brilliant pictures that Hubble has taken of exploding stars and distant nebulae. Hubble is more than just pretty pictures, though. It is a scientific juggernaut. Hubble has helped to precisely measure the age of the Universe, played a key role in the discovery of dark energy, seen galaxies over 13 billion light years distant, peered into the maelstrom of entrapped gas around black holes, and studied the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. These profound questions of our origins, destiny, and the possibility of life off the Earth, resonate with the human psyche, forming a unique bond between Hubble and the general public.
In schools, Hubble’s discoveries come to life for students of all ages through NASA’s education resources. Each year, Hubble material is used in classrooms in all 50 states, by over half a million teachers and six million students.
“When teaching about space, the biggest challenge is presenting the content in a way that makes it real for the students,” says Jamie Welebob, a science teacher at the Odyssey School in Stevenson, Maryland. “Hubble accomplishes this like nothing else.”
Our ties to Hubble run deep. In many ways, the telescope has become an extension of humanity, a way to project our imagination toward far flung planets, stars and galaxies. Hubble has lasted longer than its expected lifetime, thanks to the painstaking work of the many men and women that have worked on and supported the telescope. In return, the telescope has continued to provide—not only to scientists, but to everyday people—an irreplaceable cosmic connection between the universe and ourselves. Whether its images are used to discover new star systems or are appropriated as fashion statements, Hubble is forever embedded in cultures around the world.
Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2018, will peer farther into space than any telescope before, and help unlock the secrets of our universe. And like Hubble, we expect it to be quite the superstar.