‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ as Lord Darlington says in Oscar Wilde’s stage play, Lady Windermere’s Fan.
And if you look up into the night sky for long enough, you may catch sight of a mysterious glinting object sailing silently across the face of those stars.
This is probably a satellite; one of more than a thousand such objects, which currently orbit our planet.
Most satellites are faced back down towards the surface of the Earth, in order to perform such mundane tasks as providing weather reports, maintaining phone networks or beaming television channels into people’s living rooms.
One however, is orientated in accordance with Lord Darlingtons epithet and faces in the opposite direction, away from the Earth, up into the stars.
This satellite is the Hubble Space Telescope, which, from its vantage point, high above the Earth’s atmosphere, has fundamentally changed the way that we think about the universe.
In 1995, the telescope was used to take a 10-day exposure of a seemingly empty area of deep space. Many doubted the value of this operation, but the resulting image, known as the “Hubble Deep Field”, revealed an abundance of new galaxies, beyond the Milky Way. This exercise was repeated in 2004 with an experiment called “Ultra Deep Field,” in which more than 5,000 new galaxies were discovered, some as far as 13.2 billion light-years away. Since the light from these galaxies has taken this long to reach our solar system, these images offer a window onto what the universe looked like only a short time after the Big Bang, some 13.7 billion years ago.
As well as affording such extraordinary insights into the origins of the universe, the Hubble Space Telescope has also been the source of some of the most spectacular images of the cosmos that our world has ever seen; and these images have profoundly altered the way that we now imagine outer space.
These images are actually created here on Earth by an organisation called the Hubble Heritage Project, a dedicated group of astronomers and image processing specialists, set up by NASA to promote the benefits of its work to a wider public.
Since its formation in 1997, this unit has produced a series of spectacular images of nebulae, galaxies, and other celestial phenomena that have become the standard visual representation of the universe in anything from school textbooks to science fiction movies.
And yet, on closer examination, it would seem that the way in which these images are constructed, says more about the culture that created them, than it does about the phenomena that they appear to portray.
What most people do not realise is that many of the dramatic views that are published by the Hubble Heritage Project bear little resemblance to anything that can ever be seen in reality, anywhere in the universe.
This is because these images are in fact a product of the creative imagination, made up of, on the one hand, data that is not visible to the naked eye, and on the other, the combination of multiple sets of visible data.
For a start, the Hubble’s onboard digital cameras only record grey-scale pixels, and the actual ‘pictures’ that the telescope captures are rather dull, blurred black and white affairs.
The Hubble Heritage Project takes this rather unassuming visual data – as well as many elements, which are not visible to the human, eye – and make their own visual interpretation of this information. Firstly they decide which way is ‘up’ in the picture (in space there is, of course, no ‘up’ or ‘down’) then invisible elements are given physical form and colour and lighting effects are introduced to create highly dramatic forms of composition. In this way, otherwise formless shapes are purposely arranged to look like a fantastical, yet strangely familiar physical landscape.
The resulting images feature a highly distinctive visual language.
Elizabeth Kessler, in her book called ‘Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime,’ has shown that this distinctive visual language in fact bears a striking resemblance to the work of 19th century Frontier Artists of the American West, like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt.
‘Reference to the familiar visual iconography of 19th century landscapes of the American West threads through the Hubble Heritage Project’s efforts to reach a broad audience. The comparison of Hubble images and Romantic landscapes begins with their shared features, similarities in appearance that link two sets of images made more than a century apart: their color palettes, a focus on small regions within larger objects, dramatic backlighting, towers and pillars, a sense of overwhelming size and scale.’
Kessler who has spent a lot of time studying this imagery and talking with members of the Hubble Heritage Project goes on to say that:
‘Rather than creating something entirely new, astronomers… extended an existing mode of visualization and representation—one associated with exploration—to a new phase of discovery. The mythos of the American frontier functioned as the framework through which a new frontier was seen.’
These days, few would deny the enormous contribution the Hubble telescope has made to the sum total of scientific knowledge, however, to understand why the Hubble Heritage Project, and presumably NASA itself, might want to evoke the spirit of 19th century American Frontier Art in its portrayal of the cosmos, it is important to remember that this was not always the case.
With an original estimated cost to the American taxpayer of around US$400 million, NASA had hoped to launch the Hubble Space Telescope in 1983, but the schedule had slipped as deadline after deadline was missed.
When the Telescope was finally made ready in 1986, NASA was to suffer one of the greatest blows in its history. On 28 January that year, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, killing its crew of seven. The disaster grounded the shuttle fleet for the best part of three years. Without the shuttle, Hubble could not be launched into orbit.
When, the telescope was finally launched, in April 1990, some seven years late, and billions of dollars over budget, NASA scientists were devastated to discover that its main mirror had been polished to the wrong specifications.
The fault was miniscule, yet it was enough to render the telescope incapable of performing most of the tasks for which it had been designed.
In the months that followed, the telescope and NASA itself became the butt of many jokes, and the project was universally regarded as a white elephant. So, in July, a Newsweek magazine cover branded it as: ‘NASA’S $1.5 BILLION BLUNDER’ and the following year the comedy film, The Naked Gun 2½, depicted the Hubble telescope alongside the Titanic, and the Hindenburg. The name Hubble had become a byword for misjudgment on a spectacular scale.
The laughter continued well into December 1993 when NASA sent up a Space Shuttle servicing mission to attempt to correct the Hubble’s poor vision with what many gleefully referred to as ‘space glasses’.
And then, suddenly, the laughter stopped.
One after another, awe-inspiring images of the furthermost corners of the cosmos now began to emerge from the Hubble Heritage Project team. These spectacular images with names like ‘Mystic Mountain’ and the ‘Twin Pillars of Creation began to redefine how we imagined the universe around us.
With these images, the Hubble Heritage Project was attempting to portray, the world beyond the frontiers of normal human experience, so it is perhaps no surprise that they took their visual language cues from American Frontier artists who, in the 19th century had similarly portrayed the American West as a vast uninhabited, unspoiled Eden, for the benefit of the population back East.
The story of the expansion to the west is a cornerstone of the United States’ national identity. In 1991 an art exhibition held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC called The West as America, Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920, had ignited a nationwide controversy about American Frontier art.
In the exhibition catalogue, one of the show’s main curators William H. Truettner had written:
‘…images from Christopher Columbus to Kit Carson show the discovery and settlement of the West as a heroic undertaking. Many nineteenth-century artists and the public believed that these images represented a faithful account of civilization moving westward. A more recent approach argues that these images are carefully staged fiction and that their role was to justify the hardship and conflict of nation building. Western scenes extolled progress but rarely noted damaging social and environmental change.’
And yet it is too simplistic to see artists like Bierstadt and Moran, as purveyors of propaganda for the Westward expansion of the United States.
Of course, the images they created clearly had the effect of propaganda… inspiring many people to migrate West, but this was not necessarily a conscious decision on the part of the artists involved as Elizabeth Kessler, explains these artists were primarily driven by a Romantic vision of ‘The Sublime’ – as advocated by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke – and the majestic landscapes of the 19th century American West provided the perfect opportunity to express this vision. The fact that their work suited the geopolitical agenda was, perhaps, more coincidental than causal.
Similarly, to suggest that the Hubble Heritage Project images were consciously deployed in a bid to repair NASA’s corporate reputation – by adopting the visual language of the art of Manifest Destiny – is possibly a little unfair. Even though it was undeniably useful.
It is perhaps best to think that they had their minds on higher matters. Or as Lord Darlington put it: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’