MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
It was 25 years ago tomorrow that NASA launched the Hubble Telescope. It gave us a new view of the universe, and NPR's Cosmos and Culture blogger Adam Frank tells us its remarkable work will endure for centuries.
ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: Back when I was a young astrophysics grad student, I tried to make it home a couple times a year. At meals with some of my extended family, one of my great-aunts would invariably ask why at age 28 I was still in school. I'd tell her about my work studying the evolution of stars, how they're born, how they die. But no matter how poetic or uplifting I tried to make my explanations, she'd always bring the conversation to an abrupt halt with the same question - so, what's it good for? Then NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope. Once the high-def images of multi-hued interstellar clouds and swirling galaxies began landing on magazine covers, I didn't need to justify astronomy to my aunt, or anyone else, for that matter. Measured in terms of raw discoveries, Hubble is the most successful scientific instrument in history. From planets to black holes to the large-scale structure of the universe entire, you'd be hard-pressed to find a domain of cosmic science whose textbooks haven't been rewritten because of the Hubble Space Telescope. But Hubble's achievements are not just trapped in textbooks. When we imagine the cosmos now, we can't help but do so in Hubble's colors and with Hubble's details. That telescope didn't just make discoveries. Its high-resolution eyes showed us the universe in ways we simply could not have imagined before. When it showed us light-year-spanning cathedrals of gas where new stars are born, Hubble revealed a new kind of grace. When it showed us glittering but ancient jewels marking the apocalyptic death of stars, it spoke of power on a scale words cannot embrace. Hubble gave humanity a new visual vocabulary to voice the awe and wonder that come to us all first as children standing under the star-filled night sky. Unlike anything before it, the Hubble Space Telescope became a portal. And what passed through it refreshed and renewed our greatest aspirations. And in doing so, it became both a testimony to our collective genius and a window to the true dimensions of our cosmic home. Now at a time when American leadership in science is being willfully abandoned for narrow short-term expediencies and other nations are picking up the mantle of discovery, it's important to recognize exactly what we did in building that remarkable machine. Thousands of years from now, all of our names will be long forgotten. And all the names of our famous football players and pop stars and politicians, they'll be forgotten too. But Hubble will be remembered. If human beings are still around then, what Hubble did to us and what it did for us - that will endure. That's because the true legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope, its true gift to the future, is the one we've given ourselves - we have seen farther. Across an ocean of space and time and galaxies, we have seen where we truly are, and therefore what we truly are.
BLOCK: Adam Frank is an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.