In October 2022, I happened across a notice in a social media post about a limited-engagement art installation in midtown Manhattan. It was said to be a multimedia exhibition inspired by images from the James Webb Space Telescope. Titled Unfolding the Universe, it was the work of a young, Brooklyn-based artist named Ashley Zelinskie. The exhibition was everything the ad promised—it included a chance to put on virtual reality (VR) headsets and walk through a 360-degree environment of Zelinskie’s vision of the cosmos. In addition, we looked at sculpture, interactive computer programs, and a special room with fog and comets zooming across the ceiling. I found out that NASA not only encouraged the artist to pursue this project, but it sent astronauts to New York to put on panel discussions.
An Ashley Zelinskie sculpture at Unfolding the Universe (Source: Flickr; Terry Ballard)
I am old enough to remember sitting in my parents’ den watching Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon. In those days, NASA was an immense government agency that spent billions of dollars to send people into space and probes to every corner of the solar system. It seemed to be staffed by thousands of intense-looking men who carried slide rules in their shirt pockets. It never occurred to me that this massive enterprise would want to interact with regular citizens, beyond letting us watch as rockets are being launched. But something changed as we moved into a new century. NASA staffers are now doing outreach to make sure that you are as excited about the universe as they are.
NASA Exhibits at My Library
In January 2023, at the East Meadow Public Library in New York, there was a Discover Exoplanets exhibition that is sent on a rolling basis to libraries around the country. I spoke with Jude Schanzer, director of public relations and programming at the library. She told me that she’d had no previous connection to NASA when she’d arranged for Visions of the Universe, an exhibit of space-themed posters that ran at the library in 2012. Over time, she kept getting bigger and more elaborate displays, and she was noticed by NASA—and was chosen as one of 10 library professionals to attend a series of workshops in Florida on the Mars Curiosity Rover and attend its launch. A display based on the rover will be featured at the library this April.
Schanzer said the Discover Exoplanets exhibit is only available to libraries: “NASA loves libraries, as they are open to entire communities and beyond.” This love is evident when you attend the American Library Association (ALA) conferences. NASA is always there with a large booth, providing lectures and swag such as tote bags and bookmarks. At one notable lecture, I found out that NASA promotes experimentation with the images that it provides. This was interesting to me because I had been quietly doing that for years.
Enhancing Images From Space
As an amateur astronomer and photographer for decades, it was inevitable that I would cross paths with NASA images. Over the years, I would download some of the better images from the Hubble Telescope and tweak them just a little bit. Then I would save them to a NASA-inspired gallery on my Flickr account. These photos soon found an audience, and they have now been visited many thousands of times. My favorite image was taken from a NASA video from a satellite a million miles out. It showed the moon passing in front of Earth. When it arrived dead center, I took a screenshot.
My screenshot of the dark side of the moon passing in front of Earth (Source: Flickr; courtesy of NASA)
In 2022, we entered the age of the James Webb Space Telescope. I assumed that there would be a webpage containing Webb images exclusively, but I could not find one, even on the NASA site. At the urging of Facebook friends, I created a gallery myself. Each image is a verified photo from the Webb telescope. In addition to minor tweaks, I always link back to the NASA original, which contains considerable detail about the object in space.
A selection of Webb telescope photos from my Flickr Webb gallery (Source: Flickr; courtesy of NASA)
I wondered how NASA staffers felt about people changing and displaying the agency’s images. I got a clear answer for this when I asked one year at the ALA NASA booth. The staffers there told me that they had a series of telescopes that would take requests for photos of objects in space. It took a bit of searching, but I found the page Observing With NASA. This initiative is the result of a partnership among NASA, Harvard University, and the Smithsonian.
Not only will NASA fire up its telescope to make an image on demand, but when the image arrives in a day or two, you’re also sent NASA’s own online graphics program to manipulate it and save the final result. I tried this out recently, asking for an image of the Pinwheel Galaxy. In the raw image, you could hardly see it, but after 10 minutes of adjusting contrast and saturation, it was a very presentable galaxy, which immediately found an audience on my Flickr page.
Requested image, edited, of the Pinwheel Galaxy (Source: Flickr; courtesy of NASA)
This is just one of the many educational initiatives offered by NASA. There is simply too much to cover in a single article, so I suggest that you visit NASA’s Universe of Learning. It features information and projects for learners of all ages and education levels that help them engage with STEM topics. “Our team is made up of scientists, engineers, and educators who have direct connections to [NASA] missions. We also rely on a nationwide network of informal educators, scientists, and engineers who not only share our resources, but also help us develop them,” the website states.
Even this detailed site fails to cover everything the agency is doing, but it is a good introduction. Jude Schanzer commented of NASA, “They now have comprehensive educational websites with lesson plans and projects that are available to libraries.”
A Chat With the Artist
I recently did an email interview with Ashley Zelinskie, the artist whose Unfolding the Universe art installation made a splash in Manhattan. I asked her how the idea to create it came about. “I have always had an interest in astronomy and all sciences for that matter. My artwork incorporates everything from biology to astronomy, genetics to computer science, the list goes on and I am always adding to it,” she wrote. “So the idea to partner with the Webb team really fit into my mission as an artist. The idea to make a VR piece with them however was influenced by the limitations of the pandemic. I have always wanted to work with VR, but being stuck indoors and wanting to connect with people was the push I needed to do it.”
Ashley Zelinskie at her Unfolding the Universe art installation (Source: Flickr; Terry Ballard)
I was curious to know how she got in touch with NASA. She wrote, “I connected with NASA though a few different channels. I was introduced to them through the SETI artist in residence program (SETI is the Search for Extraterrestrial Life—a think tank set up by NASA to deal with the possibility of finding alien life), and then again via NASA Social, a public outreach program that anyone can apply to. I encourage everyone to apply for a NASA Social event! They are an amazing way to witness firsthand the wonderful work NASA is doing.”
In the past few years, I have been involved in working with various NASA images, tweaking them, and referring viewers back to the original. In writing this article, I found that I have barely scratched the surface of getting involved with NASA. The sky is no longer the limit.