The Hubble Space Telescope has been sending stunning images of deep space back to Earth for more than two decades. Astrophysicists use Hubble’s images as well as those from other spacecraft in their research, but perhaps the most important purpose is to showcase NASA’s work to the public. NASA’s images and footage are used in everything from TV to movies, and they’ve inspired visual artists and musicians for decades. We explore how images of space are created and used in everything from scientific study to pop culture.


  • Zolt Levay Imaging Team Lead, Office of public Outreach at the Space Telescope Science Institute; Principal Investigator, Hubble Heritage Team
  • Bert Ulrich Liaison for Multimedia, Film and TV Collaborations, NASA Office of Communications
  • Emil de Cou National Symphony Orchestra’s Wolf Trap Festival conductor; Music Director, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle, WA

Images From The Hubble Space Telescope

NASA’S Art Collection: 50 Years Of Exploration

Mars As Art


  • 13:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The Hubble Space Telescope has been sending stunning images of space back to earth for more than two decades.

  • 13:07:00

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThose images, as well as those sent back from other space craft are used by scientists in their research. But the beautiful pictures' primary purpose, to showcase NASA's work to the public and no wonder the images of deep space are stunning, including vast star fields.

  • 13:07:22

    MR. KOJO NNAMDINASA's images and footage have been used in TV, movies, commercials and pictures from our space program have inspired visual artists and musicians since its inception.

  • 13:07:31

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this is Zolt Levay. He is imaging team lead in the Office of Public Outreach at the Space Telescope Science Institute. He's also the principal investigator of the Hubble Heritage Team. That's a group that produces and publicizes images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Zolt Levay, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:07:51

    MR. ZOLT LEVAYThank you so much for having me, Kojo.

  • 13:07:53

    NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Bert Ulrich. He is the liaison for Multimedia, Film and TV Collaborations with NASA's Office of Communications. Bert Ulrich, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:06

    MR. BERT ULRICHThank you.

  • 13:08:07

    NNAMDIWe know this is a conversation you'll want to join. Are there any images from NASA and the space program that have stuck with you? Give us a call 800-433-8850 or send email to Zolt, you're part of the Hubble Heritage Team. Can you tell us a little bit about the Hubble Heritage Project?

  • 13:08:27

    LEVAYHubble Heritage was a team of astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute where I work. They got together and thought that they needed to kind of make the definitive collection of images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

  • 13:08:48

    LEVAYAnd so a number of years ago, back in 1997, 1998, they got a team together and started not only mining the archive of Hubble data so most of the images come from existing data from the Hubble Space Telescope, but we're also pleased to have gotten some actual time on the telescope, which was a very rare commodity, a very precious commodity. And we are very appreciative to numerous directors of the institute that have granted this time.

  • 13:09:26

    LEVAYAnd the primary purpose of that extra time on the telescope was to kind of fill in the gaps in the data that may have been in the archive. And so over the years, we've been able to start on this collection and have amassed a number of images.

  • 13:09:42

    NNAMDIA beautiful it is. Scientists do use the images you create from the Hubble Space Telescope in their work, but that's not the primary reason they're created. Why do you make these pictures?

  • 13:09:53

    LEVAYWell, the primary reason is, at least for a number of images, is to illustrate the reports and the discoveries of Hubble so, you know, it helps tell the story. So every science discovery from Hubble is a story and we illustrate that story. We tell the story in words, but we also illustrate the story with images that are made from the data that the scientists use and other graphics or cartoons or whatever to help tell the story.

  • 13:10:26

    NNAMDIBecause, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, Bert Ulrich, and, of course, Hubble isn't the only space craft sending back images. Another one that's gotten a lot of attention is the Rover Curiosity...

  • 13:10:36

    ULRICHOh yes.

  • 13:10:38

    NNAMDI...which landed on Mars last August. You also work with NASA's images. Tell us a little bit about what you do.

  • 13:10:39

    ULRICHUm, I work on film and TV collaborations. So if there's a movie studio that would like to create a film and it has a NASA storyline and they want to use our footage or they want to do a little bit of shooting at a NASA facility, I kind of help facilitate that.

  • 13:10:59

    ULRICHAnd also, for documentary programming, we work on about 100 documentaries a year and I find that documentaries have really educated the public a lot, that we have a very, very educated public now about space exploration in a way that I've never seen before.

  • 13:11:10

    ULRICHSo the footage and the stills really, really bring home the great assets that NASA brings back, so.

  • 13:11:19

    NNAMDII'll make sure you have my film treatment in your pocket when you leave.

  • 13:11:19

    ULRICHThere you go.

  • 13:11:23

    NNAMDIWe're not just talking about images, though, that are created by NASA. Artists of all kinds are inspired by space and the NASA program. Can you tell us about some of the other art that NASA features?

  • 13:11:33

    ULRICHYeah, I mean, NASA actually has an art program, which I've been working with for over 20 years where NASA has commissioned artists to document the history of the space agency. And it was started already back in 1962. The first administrator, James Webb, thought that artists would bring "unique insight" into developments of the space program and that the space era would be a very important era of history and often the residue you have from important ages of history is art.

  • 13:12:00

    ULRICHSo commissions began back in the early '60s for very meager amounts of money, I have to say. I think the commissions started at $800 and they only went up to $2500 by the end. We don't really commission anymore. We don't have a budget for it.

  • 13:12:14

    ULRICHBut it started off with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Norman Rockwell. Annie Leibovitz has worked with us, William Wegman, Thomas Struth, a number of major artists and also lesser-known artists as well that have basically told the NASA story through their imaginations, emotions and what they've seen at NASA and been able to interpret for the public.

  • 13:12:33

    NNAMDII wish they'd work for me for those rates. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Are there images from NASA and the space program that have stuck with you? You can send email to or send us a tweet @kojoshow We're talking with Bert Ulrich.

  • 13:12:48

    NNAMDIHe's the liaison for Multimedia, Film and TV Collaborations with NASA's Office of Communications and Zolt Levay. He is imaging team lead in the Office of Public Outreach at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Here is Gerald in Northwest Washington. Gerald, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 13:13:04

    GERALDThank you so much for this show, Kojo. Right now, I am looking at a picture of Viral Galaxy 16 NGC1672 from Hubble. This was the astronomy picture of the day, has been one of my lifebloods over the last 10 to 12 years or something like that and I'm just absolutely ecstatic that these guys are on and sharing this information. And I can't tell you how much I've appreciated the work of Hubble.

  • 13:13:34

    GERALDI remember when the mirror needed repairing, my son and I who I think -- I forget how old Ryan was at the time, but we were glued to the TV watching this great thing and we were playing it, you know. Okay. Let's go fix the mirror.

  • 13:13:50

    GERALDI'm just so happy that you guys are on. And what's going to happen with Hubble when the new space telescope is up? And will Hubble still be being used or just what's going to happen with that?

  • 13:14:03

    NNAMDIZolt Levay?

  • 13:14:05

    LEVAYAh, well, first of all, thanks for your kind words. I really appreciate it. It's part of the reason we do this. But as far as Hubble is concerned, it's actually operating very well right now, knock on wood, not to be superstitious.

  • 13:14:22

    LEVAYBut they tell me, the engineers tell me that it's expected to last several more years, barring any catastrophic failures, which is actually longer than what was expected shortly after the last service, the final service ignition. But in terms of the follow-on mission, James Webb's space telescope, that is expected to be launched in 2018, in just a few years.

  • 13:14:46

    LEVAYAnd we hope, if, in fact, Hubble is able to last a few more years, then there will be some overlap and that would be a great thing to happen because then the astronomers could make observations simultaneously with the two instruments and compare them.

  • 13:15:07

    LEVAYAnd as James Webb is kind of a follow-on to Hubble and able to pursue the kinds of science, Hubble is reaching its limits in that area of science. James Webb is actually designed to carry on those beyond those limits and be able to do things that Hubble was not designed to do and cannot do.

  • 13:15:29

    LEVAYSo if, in fact, there is a period of overlap, that would be a wonderful consequence.

  • 13:15:34

    NNAMDIGerald, you should know that Zolt and Bert brought some of these images with them so if I sound distracted, it's because of looking at these images. But you can also go to our website and you will find a slideshow of some of the images. Gerald, thank you. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850.

  • 13:15:52

    NNAMDIZolt, we'll get into how the images are made in a minute, but I'd like to know how the images from the Hubble Space Telescope are used and where they end up.

  • 13:16:02

    LEVAYThe images are used all over the place. I mean, first of all, the data that comes from the telescope is used by scientists to do analyses, to understand the universe better and that's why the telescope was built. The telescope was actually, maybe surprisingly, not built to make pretty pictures. The telescope was made to produce the best astronomical data possible and to do that, it was launched above the atmosphere because the atmosphere distorts the light that's coming to telescopes that are on the ground.

  • 13:16:35

    LEVAYSo the best solution was to launch the telescope into orbit above the atmosphere. So the primary purpose, again, is to do science and it has done a tremendous amount of science and furthered our understanding tremendously. But as a fortunate byproduct, as I like to say, we can produce these images because it is imaging data.

  • 13:16:58

    LEVAYIt is images in the same sense that your camera takes images so we can produce these pictures. So the result, the question you asked, Kojo, was that where these images end up.

  • 13:17:07

    NNAMDIEnd up?

  • 13:17:10

    LEVAYIn fact, they end up everywhere. They end up in newspapers, in magazines, online, of course, and they are on our website, And there's also a site that's coming from the European space agency. But then they are reproduced in websites, you know, all kinds of websites, in books and magazines and also in movies.

  • 13:17:37

    ULRICHYeah, and in the movies, a lot actually -- there is a movie IMAX Hubble 3D which actually took the images and you could actually three-dimensionally go through them and it's a wonderful film. And it's a wonderful film. I mean, it's amazing how these images have really touched the imaginations of producers and directors and screenwriters.

  • 13:17:52

    ULRICHAnd you see the images pop up in different ways, especially in sci-fi movies that are coming out. And we've been very lucky to have these things dotted and peppered into films.

  • 13:18:03

    NNAMDIIndeed, you've pointed out, Zolt, that a good part of the Hubble's success can be credited to these pictures from the telescope because it's the public response that these images generate. Correct?

  • 13:18:14

    LEVAYThe public does seem to have a big response to them and it's sometimes a little bit surprising to me because they're essentially abstract images to many people. They may not be familiar with what they're looking at, but I think visually they're compelling. They can be compelling visual objects.

  • 13:18:37

    NNAMDIWell, they may be abstract images, but people do want to know information. We got a Don from Washington, D.C. who says, "when the Hubble takes pictures how far away are we looking?"

  • 13:18:49

    LEVAYWe're looking as far away as we can look. Some of the images that Hubble has taken are seeing among the farthest objects that are known anywhere. These are back billions, billions with a B, billions of light years away. The universe is 13.7 billion years old so the oldest thing -- the universe itself is 13.8 billion years old so the farthest things can't be farther away than that in light years so.

  • 13:19:29

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on space art and we'll be talking about music. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Would you enjoy a concert featuring images from space set to music? 800-433-8850, send email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:21:46

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about space art with Zolt Levay. He is imaging team lead in the Office of Public Outreach at the Space Telescope Science Institute. He's also the principal investigator of the Hubble Heritage Team which produces and publicizes images from the Hubble space telescope. Also in studio with us is Bert Ulrich. He is the liaison for Multimedia Fila and TV Collaborations with NASA's Office of Communications.

  • 13:22:11

    NNAMDIBert, you work not just with visual artists, but also with music including the National Symphony Orchestra. I'm going to bring someone in who's worked on those concepts with you. Please welcome Emil de Cou. He is the National Symphony Orchestra's Wolf Trap Festival conductor in his 13th season. He's also the music director for the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle Wash. He joins us by phone from San Francisco. Emil de Cou, say hello to Bert Ulrich and Zolt Levay.

  • 13:22:42

    MR. EMIL DE COUHello guys and great to be with you, Kojo.

  • 13:22:44

    NNAMDIThank you very much for joining us, Emil. You are the conductor -- you're a conductor with the National Symphony. It's my understanding that you've done quite a few collaborations with NASA. Tell us about some of those concerts.

  • 13:22:55

    COUWell, the first one that we did together was in 2006 and we were planning a performance of Gustav Holst's The Planets, the suite that he wrote back in 1913. And we wanted to have images. This is before it was always done with images. Now it's pretty common but back then it was pretty unusual. And so we're trying to think where would you go to find images to go with each of these planets and would tie into the music.

  • 13:23:16

    COUAnd so I thought being in Washington D.C. I would just pick up the phone and call NASA and see what they have to say. And I was so surprised, not by the response by just by the artistry that you have at NASA. And going to NASA headquarters on that day meeting Bert and going downstairs where the whole bottom floor is video archives for NASA television, which is a huge, huge place. It's like a huge TV studio. And they were showing me the images that they could have either from satellites or flybys or computer generated. And they were absolutely breathtaking.

  • 13:23:48

    COUAnd so from 2006 on, we've had I think around 11 or 12 other collaborations with National Symphony, at Udvar-Hazy, at the Museum of the American Indian, at the Seattle Opera House. And it's just been thrilling. Frederick Harris is the major radiographer who I've worked with and who works at NASA television. And he's one of the most musical and creative visual artists I've ever met.

  • 13:24:12

    NNAMDIBert Ulrich, I get the impression that Emil was pleasantly surprised when he found out that you were more than ready for him.

  • 13:24:18

    ULRICHYeah, that's right. Well, we were so excited to have these wonderful opportunities with Emil. And Emil is always a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of inspiration I think for the agency as well. And it's wonderful to have champions like Emil out there in different areas and facets of the world and able to sort of bring inspiration that much further to the public.

  • 13:24:39

    NNAMDIEmil, what would I experience if I came to one of these concerts? For instance, you did a program featuring images from the Curiosity Mission to Mars. Tell us about that.

  • 13:24:48

    COUWell, we had a section of footage that Duncan Cobb who produced a later version of The Planets video from NASA archives. And it was in July -- late July of last year about, I think, eight days before Curiosity was supposed to land on the surface of Mars, and did of course.

  • 13:25:07

    COUAnd so Duncan put together about a three-minute video film to go with music of Georges Bizet that I picked out of the launch, the flight to Mars and how it would land, which if you've seen it online or on television, it's the most complicated thing how the sky crane works. And it looks like something that was made up by, I don't know, Isaac Asimov or somebody. And it was like, this is never going to work.

  • 13:25:31

    COUSo Charlie Bolden who's the NASA administrator came and introduced the clip and we played it. And it was just a thrilling joyride to Mars. And then eight days later I was fortunate enough to be with Bert at the JPL in Pasadena. And actually watching it land in live time was the thrill of a lifetime. And then we brought it back for a performance that I did at the Seattle Opera House for the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair introduced by Bobak Ferdowsi who's the -- better known as NASA's Mohawk guy who is there at JPL.

  • 13:26:05

    NNAMDIOh, yeah, he's been on this broadcast, too.

  • 13:26:06

    COUOh, he's great. He's a great guy and a great advocate for NASA. And he came on stage because he actually studied in Seattle at the University of Washington, and introduced that. And we had a different promo because by then it actually had landed and it wasn't a pipe dream. But it was this -- one of the more thrilling things I think for NASA and also great for reaching out, using Hubble, but also using Curiosity to grab the imagination of the American people, and younger people especially, as it did for me with the Apollo program way back in the late '60s.

  • 13:26:36

    ULRICHYeah, Curiosity really hit us by storm. I have to honestly say we had Time Square offered to show the footage of the landing. We expected only a couple hundred people there. There were thousands of people at Time Square at like 1:00 in the morning and they were chanting NASA. I mean, I have never ever seen anything like that.

  • 13:26:52

    NNAMDIThat's when people like to come out to Time Square. But having talked about that, let's listen to a little bit of it. This is Mars as Art.

  • 13:27:47

    NNAMDIMars as Art. You can find a link to that video at our website Bert and Emil, the images combined with the music from Mars is art that's all quite mesmerizing. Can you talk a little bit about how you collaborate to create these programs? How you select the images, decide to set them to music? First you, Bert.

  • 13:28:07

    ULRICHI think a lot has to do with the editor who's editing the footage with the music because they usually are given a clip that they work with, an audio clip . And then they weave everything together and it's really wonderful. It's a submersive experience when you actually hear music and you're seeing something really beautiful or something very, very powerful. And it's just thrilling.

  • 13:28:28


  • 13:28:29

    COUWell, we had actually two different versions of this. That's of course the piece by Claude Debussy, the French composer, Clair de Lune. And we performed the Mars as Art images with that music, which is one of my favorites of any piece written as a tribute to Sally Ride, the first American astronaut in space. That was May 20 at the Kennedy Center. And it's incredibly powerful when you see that with these images.

  • 13:28:52

    COUYou can fine also more of Mars as Art images if you just type in Mars as art on Google. And there's a whole bunch of web pages. But I met the head of the Mars office I guess last summer when we were thinking of our program in Seattle for the 50th anniversary of Seattle World's Fair, which was a world's fair about science and technology and art and music. Because it came right after Sputnik in 1957.

  • 13:29:16

    COUAnd so it was a natural since NASA had a huge presence in a big pavilion right by the Space Needle. And so for that performance we put together the same images but music with Duke Ellington, was one of my favorites is the Solitude arranged for string orchestra. And so it became with both pieces, but I think even more so with the Ellington almost like a meditation or a prayer looking at these images. So it wasn't just underscoring and pictures.

  • 13:29:45

    COUAnd Bobak was there in the audience. He said he was brought almost to the point of tears, which is quite something for a scientist. But Bert I think had the best seat in the house because he was offstage with Nichelle Nichols, who's better known as the original Lieutenant Uhura, who actually was an early big-band singer with the Ellington Orchestra in the '50s. And she was going to sing the theme to Star Trek as the next number. And so Bert's there offstage with Nichelle all dressed up. And she started singing along...

  • 13:30:15

    ULRICHTo Solitude. It was great.

  • 13:30:17

    COUAnd I would've given anything to hear that. It was really cool.

  • 13:30:20

    NNAMDIEmil de Cou is the National Symphony Orchestra's Wolf Trap Festival conductor in his 13th season. He's also the music director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, Wash. Let's go to the phones and talk with Dana in Leesburg, Va. Dana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:30:36

    DANAHello. How is everybody?

  • 13:30:38

    NNAMDIWe're doing well.

  • 13:30:40

    DANAI'm calling -- I just wanted to say thank you to the gentleman who works with the outreach program at Space Telescope. I think one of you do and several times over the past 12, 13 years I have had some -- I've hosted a few star parties at the public library in Columbia, Md. and a few out here in Virginia. And when we do I call the outreach department and ask if they could send us some photographs, pamphlets, anything. And, oh my gosh, the amount of wonderful materials that they do send us is phenomenal.

  • 13:31:17

    DANAAnd I just wanted to say thank you and how important it is that these people actually get to take something home. And they put it on their wall or they put it on the fridge. The kids get so excited. And it's important and I'm so glad that you have that and that these pictures are available to anybody.

  • 13:31:34

    NNAMDIYou have made Zolt Levay's day but I will allow him to speak for himself.

  • 13:31:39

    LEVAYYes. Well, thank you very much. That's very gratifying and that's of course why we do it. But I'm also glad that you're out there doing star parties and that's a very valuable form of outreach as well. Having people have a direct connection with the sky and space and nature of any sort is extremely important today as we become more developed and as we see less and less of the sky directly. So I applaud your efforts to reach out to the public in that way.

  • 13:32:13

    NNAMDIAnd Zana (sic) , Bert can also tell us that those images and all that footage are in a way ours.

  • 13:32:19

    ULRICHYes. Yeah, the public can use all the footage as they wish. And it's there for the taking. The footage and the still imagery. So that's one of the great gifts we can give back to the wonderful taxpayers that keep space alive here in this country. So...

  • 13:32:35

    NNAMDIDana, thank you for your call. You too can join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. Would you enjoy a concert featuring images from space set to music, 800-433-8850? Emil, you say the crowd coming to a National Symphony Orchestra's concerts at Wolf Trap is different from that at the Kennedy Center. So who comes to these space-inspired concerts?

  • 13:32:59

    COUWell, it's a whole wide variety of people because if you're coming to a concert -- we had one concert -- two concerts for The Planets, we had one called Fantastic Planet, which was kind of an updated version of the 1940 Disney movie "Fantasia" with images again by NASA. And so you get people who are interested in science. With the first Planets that we did, we had Leonard Nimoy as narrator, so you had like a lot of Star Trek fans. I've never heard an audience scream at a symphony concert like when he walked onstage and flashed the Vulcan greeting.

  • 13:33:32

    COUSo you get a wide variety. You know, if you go to Carnegie Hall and you have say a (unintelligible) symphony or even The Planets, you get people who seem to (unintelligible) the music. And at Wolf Trap it's one of the most beautiful outdoor venues for concerts anywhere.

  • 13:33:46

    NNAMDIThat it is.

  • 13:33:47

    COUSo you can sit on the lawn, you can bring wine, you can bring dinner. And you just get a big mix of people, which I love. And many people are hearing a symphony orchestra for the first time. And the great thing about these collaborations with NASA is that you are able to reach people that you wouldn't otherwise be able to get. And since we're so much more a visual culture than we were, you know, even 20 years ago, when you have images at a concert people listen differently if they're watching something than if they're just watching me conduct or an orchestra play.

  • 13:34:21

    COUAnd so it hits you in a different part of the brain, a different part of your heart. And you're more open to the messages of space and science and exploration and to the message of the great music.

  • 13:34:33

    NNAMDIWell, watching Emil conduct is nothing to sneeze at either because he was awarded NASA's Exceptional Public Achievement metal. The first musician to be given that distinction. What kind of honor was that? I'm not sure I should ask you, Emil, because you might be too modest to respond. So, Bert, tell us about it.

  • 13:34:53

    ULRICHWell, it's a rarity to get a metal like that. And I think it's the highest honor that NASA can give to somebody outside of the agency. And so it's very, very exciting that we were able to give that to Emil. And we did it actually on the stage at Wolf Trap. I don't know if Emil had mentioned that earlier. And it was really a wonderful experience. Charlie Bolden our administrator, you know, put the metal around his neck and he, you know, bent over. It was quite -- it was interesting.

  • 13:35:18

    NNAMDIAnd Emil was saying, I'm getting a metal from a famous astronaut?

  • 13:35:22

    COUWell, I mean, that was the ultimate mind trip because actually when I was a kid I wanted to work for NASA and be an aerospace engineer. And I just -- well, my math skills weren't quite good enough and by then music sort of came along and took over. And then many, many years later -- because I was one of those kids that would write to NASA and have my bedroom all decorated with astronaut pictures and rockets. And...

  • 13:35:43

    ULRICHYeah, he's really -- and go ahead, I'm sorry.

  • 13:35:45

    COUWell, I was struck with your caller because that sort of generous nature of NASA, especially with young people and education, is there since the 1960's and today, exactly the same. So if you write to NASA you'll get a whole bunch of pictures and books and, you know, signed photographs. And so it's pretty heady, you know, years later to get this incredible honor and to be given to me by the presidentially-appointed administrator of NASA in Charles Bolden, and a great man, a general, former astronaut. And there he is.

  • 13:36:16

    ULRICHDouble astronaut.

  • 13:36:16

    COUAnd it's something I'll never forget.

  • 13:36:19

    NNAMDIWell, there's a great deal of music, Emil, featured in films about space. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:36:25

    COUWell, yeah. It's interesting with the latest sort of resurgence of the interest in space and space exploration in films and fantasy. I'm glad to see the Star Trek films, you know, coming back and being so popular. Also there was a really touching and very sweet film that didn't get a huge amount of play called "Wall-E"...

  • 13:36:48

    NNAMDII loved it myself.

  • 13:36:50

    COUIsn't that fantastic?

  • 13:36:51

    NNAMDIIt was a great film. It is a great film.

  • 13:36:53

    COUIt is and Bert worked with Disney on that because they used NASA logos. But I thought it was such a sweet film.

  • 13:36:59

    ULRICHThere's a lot of footage, yeah.

  • 13:37:01

    COUAnd Thomas Newman wrote the score. We actually premiered a suite from the score before the movie was released. Disney uncharacteristically let us do that because they keep things pretty secret. And so that was done on a program with The Planets narrated by Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. And that was at the American Indian Museum. And I'm just a big fan of the music.

  • 13:37:25

    COUAnd also of course there's John Williams who has done probably more for American popular music than any single person. And his scores are just timeless.

  • 13:37:35

    NNAMDIWell, now that I know that Bert Ulrich collaborated on "Wall-E," I'm going to have to ask for your autograph.

  • 13:37:40

    ULRICHOh, please.

  • 13:37:41

    NNAMDIThank you very much. In my view he is a star. Emil de Cou, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:37:47

    COUThank you so much, Kojo.

  • 13:37:47

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a break, and as we do we're going to listen to a little bit of the music from "Wall-E." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:40:00

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about art, space, and space art with Bert Ulrich. He is the liaison for multimedia film and TV collaborations with NASA's Office of Communications. He joins us in studio along with Zolt Levay. Zolt is imaging team lead in the Office of Public Outreach at the Space Telescope Science Institute, and principal investigator of the Hubble Heritage Team which produces and publicizes image from the Hubble space telescope, which is what I think Jim in Silver Spring wants to talk about.

  • 13:40:31

    NNAMDIJim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Jim are you there? Jim, come in. Jim's been waiting for awhile. So I'm going to put you back on hold, Jim, and we will get back with you because I do not want to miss that part of the conversation. Both of you are responsible for getting images of space out to the public. Do you see your role in a way as ambassadors for NASA?

  • 13:40:59

    ULRICHIt'd be nice to think so. Yeah. I think all of us are that work at NASA I think and the Hubble Space Telescope and in the area of space exploration. I think we all play our little part.

  • 13:41:10

    LEVAYAs much as being an ambassador for NASA, I also think we're ambassadors for science and exploration, and just are broadening our understanding in the world.

  • 13:41:21

    NNAMDIHere is Marta on Capitol Hill in Washington. Marta, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:41:26

    MARTAI'm calling to ask about their beautiful calendars. Are they still available to the public? I've had one from as far back as '08. I mean, the pictures are so beautiful that are in the calendars. Are they still available?

  • 13:41:43

    NNAMDIThe calendars may not be, but the pictures certainly are. Is that correct?

  • 13:41:48

    LEVAYAnd I know that there are calendars available from various sources. You know, since the pictures are available to anyone, lots of people are publishes calendars.

  • 13:41:57

    MARTAOh. This was the NASA 50th that they put out...

  • 13:42:02

    ULRICHWe might have had that, yeah.

  • 13:42:03 '08. And the pictures were so gorgeous. And then I kept hoping that they would -- and then I could never -- from NASA. Okay.

  • 13:42:11

    ULRICHSometimes budgets can be a little tight. I don't know.

  • 13:42:13

    MARTAAll right.

  • 13:42:14

    ULRICHMaybe we're not doing them right now.

  • 13:42:15

    MARTAOkay. Thank you.

  • 13:42:17

    NNAMDIIf you go to our website,, you'll see a slide show of some of these images, but speaking of that, we got an email from Trent who says, "Please have your guest comment on the fact that under the president's 2014 budget, funding for public outreach and education activities are going to be not reduced but completely zeroed out, and all those efforts handed over to the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian, and the Department of Education agencies that are either direct competitors to NASA, or which otherwise lack incentive to create EPO products that are the level of quality expected of NASA."

  • 13:42:51

    NNAMDIThe very topic of today's show stands to become a thing of the past under this scheme. When we are talking on this broadcast sequestration, and when we're talking about the hard economic times that we live in, this is one of the problems that we face. Is it not?

  • 13:43:07

    ULRICHIt's just the realities of the world we're living in, you know? In some years budgets are better than others.

  • 13:43:12

    NNAMDIAnd Jim in Silver Spring is back with us. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:43:17

    JIMHi, Kojo. Enjoy your show. Sorry we got cut off there a few minutes ago. But I just wanted to report that I had an 80th birthday recently, and had close to a hundred cards, but none was more beautiful than the one I got with a simple photo of the Ring Nebula from the Hubble telescope.

  • 13:43:41

    LEVAYWow, congratulations.

  • 13:43:43

    NNAMDICongratulations on your 80th birthday.

  • 13:43:46

    JIMOh, thank you.

  • 13:43:47

    NNAMDIAnd thank you for your patience on this broadcast. Jim called very early on in the broadcast. We're going to be talking a little bit more about Hubble, Jim, so you might want to just continue to listen, and once again, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. Are there any images from NASA and the space program that have stuck with you? People are fascinated by the Hubble Space Telescope, but, of course, this instrument was not designed primarily as a camera. What is Hubble designed to do?

  • 13:44:17

    LEVAYHubble is designed to do astronomy, to study the objects that are out in space and further our understanding of the universe. To do this, the finest instruments were put on this telescope and launched above the atmosphere to avoid the obscuring -- obscuration of the light by the atmosphere. So it is in fact designed to do science, to do astronomy.

  • 13:44:43

    NNAMDIThe scientists using the Hubble data do use these images in their work, but they are secondary, is that right?

  • 13:44:50

    LEVAYIn some sense, they're secondary. I mean, there is a primary use of visually inspecting the images, but in fact, the actual science, the meat of the science is done numerically, whether the on the imaging data or other kinds of data that the telescope collects. The telescope also includes other kinds of instruments, primarily spectrographs, that break up the light very precisely, and they can study the light very, very -- in a fine detail.

  • 13:45:19

    LEVAYBut yes. The -- but astronomers do use the images, and they do use the color composite images to some extent. They are published in their scientific papers occasionally. However, they are essentially a byproduct of the science, and...

  • 13:45:36

    NNAMDIThis goes a lot further back than Hubble and the advent of photography. Astronomy has always been a visual science, has it not?

  • 13:45:44

    LEVAYIn fact, originally astronomy was exclusively a visual science. People watched the sky with their naked eyes because that's all they had. Galileo was the first to use a telescope to look at the sky, and that was a huge paradigm shift for science and for astronomy. Ever since then astronomers have been building better and better instruments, more and more -- more and more sophisticated instruments, but all through that time it's been a visual science.

  • 13:46:13

    LEVAYSo up until the invention of photography, astronomers were still looking through telescopes with their eyes, making recordings by drawing or painting what they saw. Finally with the advent of photography it become more mechanized, and now with electronic detectors, we've taken that a step further in terms of precision and sensitivity, but it's essentially still recording images.

  • 13:46:40

    NNAMDIBert, you've been working on a lot of collaborations right now. You say that nerds are hot at the present time. Why do you think that is?

  • 13:46:45

    ULRICHOh, yeah. I think we're in a technology culture right now, and it's a really exciting era for that, and we're lucky to have our little own sense of nerdoriety in all of it, because I think that it's all of sudden cool to be a nerd. I mean, shows like "The Big Bang Theory," which recently had a NASA story line on it was a really exciting collaboration, and then you have all these sci-fi movies that are coming out and, you know, it just all feeds into sort of the same interest, and it's been an amazing wave. And I think curiosity got part of that as well.

  • 13:47:19

    NNAMDIWell, you talked about your participation in Wally, but in general, how does NASA participate in making movies with all -- as you pointed out, the sci-fi movies coming out now?

  • 13:47:28

    ULRICHYeah. I mean, often the producers and the directors come to us and ask us. I mean, recently, we were in a movie called, "Avengers," which was a very popular movie, and they actually had a bit of a NASA story line in the beginning which enabled us to be able to participate on some level. And then "Men in Black III" also was set in the Apollo era part of the film, and we helped with that as well. So if something comes up where they need footage, or they need imagery, or they need some sort of expertise in terms of interviewing scientists and engineers about what they're doing, we try to facilitate that, and sometimes also we get reimbursed on shoots at NASA facilities when that happens as well.

  • 13:48:09

    NNAMDIZolt, we said we'd talk about Hubble's images and how they're created. There's a misconception out there that Hubble doesn't take pictures, it just collects raw data, and your job is to make pictures from that. How does it actually work?

  • 13:48:24

    LEVAYWell, actually we do make pictures from raw data, but we're not faking anything. The pictures are -- the data are pictures. It's hard to distinguish between those two things. The instruments are cameras. They're imaging detectors, so they produce images. As I said, the scientists use -- analyze the images numerically primarily, but they were also images. Now, the big -- the big distinction -- one distinction is that the cameras are Hubble are not color cameras. They're not -- they're similar to the kind of cameras that you would use normally in everyday use, but they're also different in the fact that they don't produce color images automatically.

  • 13:49:08

    LEVAYBut they reconstruct the color images from separate exposures made through color filters within the camera, but we're doing manually the same thing your camera is doing, picking apart the light and its component colors and putting it back together again.

  • 13:49:24

    NNAMDIWell, it's doing the same thing my cameras are doing, but what kind of cameras does Hubble have, and are they anything like a camera that -- like a camera that I would recognize?

  • 13:49:36

    LEVAYIn fact, the very guts of the camera, the actual detector, is in fact very similar to the light sensitive detector that's in your camera. The big difference is again, that your -- the detector in your camera automatically produces color images.

  • 13:49:53

    NNAMDICorrect. Why does -- why is there no color component to the images that Hubble collects?

  • 13:49:58

    LEVAYIt's kind of a tradeoff. You have to trade off what astronomers would refer to as resolution, spatial information on the detector against the color. So the way the color works is that there are actually little colored filters on each detector element in the camera -- in your camera, to break apart the scene into its component colors. But that reduces the number of those pixels you have to produce an image and in effect it reduces the number of those pixels, so it lowers the resolution. It makes the quality slightly lower of that detector.

  • 13:50:38

    LEVAYBut on the upside, you get a color image out of it. Whereas on Hubble, they weren't -- they wanted to have the maximum output from the detectors, and astronomers don't really in essence -- well, they don't care about producing images per se, they want the maximum resolution and the maximum quality out of the detector.

  • 13:50:59

    NNAMDISo how do you make those colors accurate?

  • 13:51:03

    LEVAYWe don't worry too much about accuracy in the sense of reproducing what our eyes would see, because in fact that's very difficult to do. Our eyes in fact are not very sensitive to color at very low light levels and the light levels we're talking about are in fact very low. So our eyes can't in fact see -- even if we could look through the Hubble telescope, we in fact couldn't see with our eyes most of the things we're looking at.

  • 13:51:30

    LEVAYThere are two features about the detectors. One is that they're very sensitive, much more sensitive that our eyes are, but they're also able to look at the -- expose for a very long time and buildup a brighter image where eyes cannot do that.

  • 13:51:46

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Zolt Levay. He is imaging team lead in the Office of Public Outreach at the Space Telescope Science Institute and the principal investigator of the Hubble Heritage Team which produces and publicizes images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Bert Ulrich is in studio with us. He is the liaison for multimedia film and TV collaborations with NASA's Office of Communications. Are there images from NASA and the space program that have stuck with you?

  • 13:52:11

    NNAMDIGive us a call, 800-433-8850. These images that you are describing aren't what our eyes would see. What would a phenomenon like a nebula actually look like to the naked eye?

  • 13:52:24

    LEVAYWell, you can see nebula. You can see some of the brighter objects through a telescope -- a moderate size telescope, and in general they look rather pale. There's actually very little color. If you see color it's a pale red or a pale green. But they're very ghostly and very -- and oftentimes very beautiful through the telescope. But by using a sensitive detector and exposing for a very long time, you can build up an image and build up a much brighter image and see much more contrast.

  • 13:52:53

    NNAMDIPart of your job is to make these pictures beautiful.

  • 13:52:57

    LEVAYPart of our job is to make the pictures attractive and presentable, yes.

  • 13:53:03

    NNAMDIAttractive and presentable is an understatement. You're making the pictures beautiful. It's, I guess, a matter of taste, but the public is in on this and everybody seems to love them. Bert Ulrich, we got an email from Susan in Bethesda. "Does NASA exhibit any of the art that we're talking about?"

  • 13:53:22

    ULRICHYes. Actually we just finished a wonderful three-year exhibit with the Smithsonian Institute's Travel and Exhibit Services, the sites team. They sent an exhibit of 75 pieces around the country. We just had an exhibit down in Florida at the Daytona museum. We're always willing to loan out works to exhibit for the public to see.

  • 13:53:46

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Jeff in Arlington, Va. It's a little long, but please bear with me. He said, "It's worth noting that the wonderful programs managed by your NASA guests are entirely consistent with the agency's original charter under the 1958 Space Act which created the agency. NASA was given just three functions, plan and undertake aeronautical space programs, work with the scientific community to conduct research, and provide for the widest practical and appropriated dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.

  • 13:54:19

    NNAMDI"It's this type of communication that has created such public engagement in the space program since its inception." That's what you do.

  • 13:54:27


  • 13:54:29

    ULRICHYeah. We're very lucky to have that charter.

  • 13:54:30

    NNAMDIEngage the public. Here's Jay in Rockville, Md. Jay, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:54:36

    JAYThank you, Kojo. Yeah, gentlemen. I just wanted to ask, I read recently an article about an even larger space telescope that's going to be deployed in the next few years, but has orders of magnitude much more resolution and pull in a wider field rate, I guess aimed at the deep space (unintelligible) . Can you fill us in a little bit more on that, and is that a NASA project or (word?) project?

  • 13:55:00

    NNAMDIZolt Levay?

  • 13:55:01

    LEVAYYes. I believe you're probably referring to the James Webb Space Telescope, which is in fact a NASA project. It's well underway. It's largely constructed. It's being integrated. The pieces are being assembled and integrated now and tested. It's planned to be launched in 2018. It is in fact a follow-on mission to the Hubble. So Hubble, as powerful as it is has limitations and was designed to accomplish certain range of tasks, but it is limited. So to go beyond those limitations to do the kinds of science that are being asked to be done today, or being -- that scientists want to do to follow on with what's been done, demands a different kind of instrument .

  • 13:55:45

    LEVAYSo this is -- the big difference -- the big difference from Hubble is that it will be operating in the infrared regime which is light that's redder than the reddest light that we can see, but the farthest things that we're detecting in the universe are coming to us mostly in infrared light, and so that's why they're building on infrared instrument, and it has a much larger mirror. It will have roughly the same resolution in the infrared that Hubble has in the visible part of the spectrum.

  • 13:56:15

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jay. Speaking of telescopes, Zolt, you have been experimenting with making your own telescopes and photographing the sky since you were in high school it's my understanding. What do you recommend? Well, we got an email from David in DC who says, "What would you recommend for a backyard astronomer? What kind of telescope would make a good starter for a novice?"

  • 13:56:37

    LEVAYWell, I'm hardly an expert in amateur astronomy, but I have, yes, been dabbling. I started back in high school. I built myself a little six-inch telescope, and had a lot of fun with that and learned an awful lot. But there is, in fact, we're kind of in a remarkable situation now, because with advances in the electronic technology, optical technology and the cost of all this stuff is coming down and is -- a lot of stuff is accessible to people that all you have to do is get online and find a good source of telescopes, and you can find a wealth of different things.

  • 13:57:16

    LEVAYIt partly depends on what kinds of things you want to look at. If you want to look at the moon and large areas of the sky, even a pair of binoculars...

  • 13:57:26

    NNAMDII'm telling you, we're running out of time, but what I can also tell David in DC is you should know that Zolt still gets out with his SLR, puts it on a tripod with a long exposure and point it at a portion of the sky. Why do you get there?

  • 13:57:42

    LEVAYWell, if you don't have -- if you keep the camera stationary, you get streaks of the stars. As the earth rotates the stars go across the frame and you get streaks, sometimes with beautiful results. Some it's very simple, in fact.

  • 13:57:56

    NNAMDIGreat starting point, David. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Zolt Levay is imaging team lead in the Office of Public Outreach at the Space Telescope Science Institute, and principal investigator of the Hubble Heritage Team which produces and publicizes images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Zolt Levay, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:12

    LEVAYThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 13:58:13

    NNAMDIBert Ulrich is the liaison for multimedia film and TV collaborations with NASA's Office of Communications. Bert Ulrich, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:21

    ULRICHThank you.

  • 13:58:21

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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