The vision for the Hubble Space Telescope began in 1946 when astronomer Dr. Lyman Spitzer wrote a report that appeared in the appendix of a document compiled for the Douglas Aircraft Company. He proposed designing, building, and launching an “extra-terrestrial observatory” in Earth’s orbit. It took decades for his groundbreaking idea to come to fruition, including the creation of NASA in 1958, and the funding and development of the Large Space Telescope in the 1970s. Although the contracts for the creation of the hardware necessarily came first, NASA requested that the National Academy of Sciences study the possible arrangements for the scientific use of the telescope. In 1976, the group, led by Dr. Donald F. Hornig, wrote a report that recommended founding an independent institute to provide long-term guidance and support for the project, engage astronomers around the world, and disseminate its data.
In 1979, NASA issued a request for proposals for a Space Telescope Science Institute (now also known as STScI), including a site where the institute would be located. After reviewing applications from prestigious institutions and universities, NASA selected the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) in 1981, which named the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus in Baltimore, Maryland, as its base of operations. In the same year, Dr. Riccardo Giacconi was selected as STScI’s first director for his scientific leadership, technical knowledge, and his pioneering work in space astronomy and the creation of the field of X-ray astronomy. He initiated the hiring of STScI staff to support several critical science center functions: the definition of technical management and operations concepts, the development of a guide star selection system, and the creation of a science data reduction and analysis system.
NASA announced the Large Space Telescope’s official name in 1983: The Hubble Space Telescope, honoring Dr. Edwin Hubble, who demonstrated in a 1929 publication that the universe is expanding based on observations showing that more distant galaxies are receding faster than nearby galaxies. His work also revealed that there were other galaxies beyond the Milky Way—revolutionizing our view of the cosmos and our place within it.
In January 1986, the loss of the entire crew of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded after liftoff, led NASA to delay the launch of Hubble. However, STScI’s staff knew there was significant work yet to complete, which led to the 1989 release of the Guide Star Catalog and the software that supports it, revolutionizing how astronomers lock onto star positions to gather data from any ground- or space-based observatory, and ultimately automating Hubble’s observations.
In April 1990, the crew of the space shuttle Discovery successfully launched and deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. In May, its first image was released, showing a more clearly resolved star (HD96755 in the open cluster NGC 3532) compared to ground-based telescope observations. However, as institute staff collaborated with NASA and the scientific community to analyze additional data in the months that followed, they realized that Hubble’s primary mirror had an aberration; the images it returned were not perfectly focused.
Staff at the institute worked to implement software that allowed scientists to accurately revise Hubble’s data, providing improved images to the scientific community and the public. The issue was completely resolved during the first servicing mission in December 1993, which included the installation of the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR), correcting Hubble’s optics and immediately clarifying the data. NASA astronauts completed four additional servicing missions through 2009, replacing and upgrading the majority of Hubble’s instruments and increasing its resolution, power, and efficiency each time, allowing the telescope to become one of the world’s most productive scientific instruments.
Hubble’s success is due in part to STScI’s data archive, established at the outset of the mission in 1990. The archive was expanded to include data from other ultraviolet and optical space astronomy missions in 1997 and was renamed the Multi-mission Archive at Space Telescope (MAST). STScI provides secure storage and reliable retrieval services for observation data, creates user-friendly and scientifically useful search tools, and offers support services to the astronomy community. Today, MAST has a user community of more than 10,000 astronomers around the world. In addition to Hubble data, MAST houses the data of more than 20 missions in the ultraviolet, optical, and near-infrared wavelength range. In 2012, MAST was renamed in honor of Maryland’s U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, who was a steadfast supporter of NASA, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Even before Hubble was launched, STScI and NASA began organizing workshops to plan a “Next Generation Space Telescope” that would be significantly larger than Hubble and focused on infrared wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. The idea gained momentum throughout the 1990s and was formally recommended as the top space-based priority by the National Academies of Sciences Decadal Survey in 2001. After construction on the new project began, it was renamed in honor of former NASA Administrator James E. Webb in 2002. The observatory is built with new technologies that will allow it to see deeper into the universe, answer fundamental questions about the origins of planets and stars in the Milky Way, and examine the nature of the first light in the universe.
In 2001 STScI was selected to oversee the science and mission operations of the James Webb Space Telescope, planned to launch in 2021. STScI staff are uniquely prepared to support Webb. Scientists and engineers have mined more than 30 years of experience preparing for and operating Hubble to create a framework for operations that will ensure the health of Webb and maximize its scientific productivity.
STScI will also play a key role in the science operations for NASA’s next flagship observatory following Webb, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is planned to launch in the mid-2020s. With a view 100 times wider than the Hubble Space Telescope at the same sensitivity and resolution, WFIRST will build wide-field maps of large regions of the sky in near-infrared light, and has the potential to answer vital questions in exoplanet and dark energy research. Looking forward, the staff at STScI will continue to follow the institute’s mission: to help humanity explore the universe with advanced space telescopes and ever-growing data archives.