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Hubble in your hands

Scores of books let you hold Hubble imagery in your hands — including "Touch
the Invisible Sky," from which this photoillustration is taken.

Only a few astronauts have ever held the Hubble Space Telescope in their hands, but "Hubble huggers" on Earth have plenty of opportunities to get hold of Hubble's finest - including books that focus on coffee-table-sized imagery, the deeper stories behind the telescope's travails, and even the feel of outer space.

Hubble's images have inspired a lot of big books over the years - including "A Journey Through Time," which was co-written in 1995 by one of the most experienced space reporters on Earth, our own Jay Barbree. (Click here for Barbree's up-to-date reflections on Hubble's continuing mission.)

One of the latest entrants in the coffee-table category is "Hubble: Imaging Space and Time," by David Devorkin and Robert Smith. The book was published last year, so it offers up recently released images such as this panoramic view of the Carina Nebula, and addresses recently explored mysteries such as the dark energy quest.

Robert Zimmerman's "The Universe in a Mirror" takes a completely different approach: This isn't a big book with text surrounding the pictures. Instead, it's a book that tells the big stories behind the telescope (while including 16 pages' worth of color pictures).

Most of Hubble's fans know that the telescope was crippled in its early years by an incorrectly made mirror. Zimmerman explains in depth why it was crippled. The story is stranger than fiction, involving a few flecks of chipped paint on a measuring device, 1.3 millimeters' worth of washers, and a look-the-other-way philosophy that led the experts to ignore the warning signs during fabrication. (Zimmerman points out that some of the same failings arose in the run-up to NASA's 1986 Challenger tragedy.)

"The Universe in a Mirror" also tells how Hubble's handlers triumphed over adversity - not only in the case of the misaligned mirror, but throughout the telescope's history, from the late astronomer Lyman Spitzer's inspiration in 1946 to the observatory's near-death experience in 2004.

"This is a story about the desire of people to see things they've never seen before," Zimmerman told me. Spitzer suggested putting a giant telescope into orbit long before Sputnik reached orbit in 1957, but for years he got no takers. When the money was available, the technology was wanting. By the time the technology caught up, the space-race money had dried up.

Even after the space telescope got the go-ahead, the project was beset by challenges - including the Challenger tragedy (which held up Hubble's launch) and the 2003 Columbia tragedy (which led to the near-cancellation of the current servicing mission). Zimmerman also touches upon the personalities behind the project: Spitzer as well as project organizers Nancy Roman, Bob O'Dell, John Bahcall "and a legion of others who sacrificed so much to get this telescope built."

"This is a telescope that was resisted every step of the way," Zimmerman said. "But those who oppose it are eventually won over by it."

What is it about Hubble that has made it so popular with the public, even when some astronomers were ready to move on? For Zimmerman, the roots of Hubble's appeal don't spring so much from the machine itself, but from our own vision of the cosmos.

"Before Hubble, we were like a person who is nearsighted and is not allowed to put glasses on. ... If someone tries to take your glasses away, you can get pretty indignant," Zimmerman said.

Hubble's vision isn't just for those with sight: Yet another book published last year, "Touch the Invisible Sky," presents the story of Hubble and NASA's other Great Observatories in Braille, along with tactile-enhanced versions of celestial wonders. The book received a thumbs-up review from Deborah Saylor, an Alabama space enthusiast who has been blind since birth.

"The way to seek and learn the most is to develop as many ways of 'seeing' things as possible," she told Science @ NASA. "And keep your sense of curiosity and wonder alive, always!"

You can keep the wonders coming into your e-mail account by signing up for "Inbox Astronomy" at the Space Telescope Science Institute's HubbleSite. And don't forget to check in with other Hubble resources, including the European Space Agency's Hubble home page as well as our own Space Gallery and Human Spaceflight section.

If you're a Twitter fan, there are plenty of feeds you can follow - and in fact, Hubble spacewalker Mike Massimino sent his first tweet from space via the Web today:

"From orbit: Launch was awesome!! I am feeling great, working hard, & enjoying the magnificent views, the adventure of a lifetime has begun!"

On Facebook, meanwhile, you can become a friend of Hubble Heritage and keep posted on the Last Mission to Hubble. Do you have other Hubblecentric resources to recommend? Leave a comment below and I'll pass them along.