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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers
EXPANDING ACCESS TO SPACE ASTRONOMY DATA
The early years of the space program were dominated by entrepreneurs who developed instruments for inclusion in rocket payloads and then on satellites. The data from those experiments belonged to the entrepreneurs, so there was no requirement to invest resources into making the data usable by other researchers. New data formats were invented for each new set of observations, and it was impossible for researchers to use the data without the expert assistance of the primary investigators. Although the data were formally deposited in NASA’s National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC), the archive was effectively inaccessible without an invitation to visit the home institution of the principal investigator (PI).
NASA and the astronomy community took several steps to remedy what had become an insular culture for accessing space astronomy data by expanding the number of users and increasing the use of the data. These steps included but were not limited to (1) the introduction of a new institutional model for NASA astronomy science centers, as exemplified by the STScI; (2) informal and formal measures to provide access to archival data from space astronomy missions; (3) NASA requirements to expand use of space astronomy observatories through guest-observer programs; (4) standardization of data formats; and (5) expansion of the role and functions of astronomy science centers to include proposal reviews and education and outreach.
An Institutional Arrangement for NASA Astronomy Science Centers
A milestone in the emergence of NASA astronomy science centers was reached with the planning in the early 1970s for the Large Space Telescope, renamed the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) after launch. A mission of this scale clearly had to be considered a national if not an international resource, and NASA and the astronomy community were anxious to engage a larger fraction of the community as users of the data. To do this, the Hornig Committee2 was chartered to “undertake a study of the possible institutional arrangements for the use of the ST [Space Telescope].”3 The Hornig Committee report, released in 1976, recommended the creation of an independent, nongovernmental institution for archiving the data and supporting the telescope users. Although the report was meant to be published just in time to provide a scientific management model for the Hubble Space Telescope, the spacecraft was not launched until 14 years later.
At the same time, during the late 1970s, NASA had also become aware that a larger community of scientists was eager to participate in the entire enterprise of space astronomy. In response to this growing community interest, mission groups such as the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) and the Einstein Observatory, which were operating at the time, took steps to increase access to the data. The IUE, launched in January 1978 and operated out of the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and the Vilspa satellite-tracking center in Villafranca, Spain, was essentially an all-guest-investigator facility that was modeled on a typical ground-based mountain observatory. Investigators went to Goddard or Vilspa and gave first-hand instructions to a satellite operator for their observations. They could immediately access first-level processed data to utilize simple analysis programs and to develop their own specialized analysis software. IUE operated in this mode for 18 years, servicing astronomers capable of “going to the mountain” to do their observations and of developing their own software for detailed analysis. In addition, the Einstein Observatory, launched in 1978 as the first true x-ray observatory, represented a revolution-
National Research Council, 1976, Institutional Arrangements for the Space Telescope—Report of a Study at Woods Hole,Massachusetts, July 19-30.