The most famous telescope in the world never touches the ground. Hubble Space Telescope, shown passing over the Isthmus of Panama, in this set of images made in preparation for Hubble's final servicing mission. (Photo by Dana Berry)
A potentially habitable, rocky planet 1.2 times the mass of Earth shown here orbiting a red dwarf star called "GJ 1132b." This planet was discovered some 39 light-years away, which is, in astronomical terms, a nearby neighbor, and a distance close enough to put this planet on the target list for the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope mission, due to be launched in 2021. (Photo by Dana Berry)
When Dana Berry was finishing up graduate school in 1987, he already had some experience making computer graphics for businesses. So when he saw a job at the Space Telescope Science Institute for someone to make science visualizations, he jumped at the opportunity, even though he wasn’t necessarily qualified.
“I realized they needed someone to give them a vision,” he told RealClearLife. Berry had grown up interested in Carl Sagan’s work, and he took astronomy classes throughout school. So he applied and pulled off a coup, as he says. He was not fluent in mathematics or science, but he had an intuitive grasp of the subject matter.
“What attracted me to it is something that has kind of always propelled me through it,” he said. “Astronomy is the one science that answers the big questions, almost to the point of the meaning of life.”
This idea, that astronomy could teach humans about who we are, where we are from, where we our going, or even our fate, sustains Berry to this day. He is one of those people whose work you have probably seen, but didn’t know it. That’s because this job that Berry talked himself into ended up leading to a career of colorizing actual telescope data — including from NASA’s Hubble Telescope — and creating artistic impressions of space.
The Hubble faced issues when it first launched in 1990. It had cost more than $2 billion to create, and it was the next big project after the Challenger, which exploded over onlookers in Florida and killed everyone on board in 1986. On top of that, Hubble had a problem with its mirror. It was quickly discovered, Berry told RCL, but the telescope became the butt of jokes around the country, which was “really painful at the time.”
Berry said that one of the most gratifying feelings of his life was “when the Hubble was fixed.” Knowing that the telescope was going to “proceed with the world class science that it was meant to — and in fact went on to — produce” gave Berry the thrill of victory.
Once images from Hubble started coming in, Berry and everyone else at the Institute tried to figure out the best way to utilize them. The first image Berry colorized was of a supernova exploding. He told Smithsonian Magazinethat he “handled the image as gingerly as he could, as if the scientific data was holy in a way.”
“Sharing the wonders of discovery turned out to be not only a fun and edifying and altruistic thing that NASA was doing, it also turned out to be a pragmatic one,” Berry told RCL. There was more political support for science because you “brought people along for the ride,” he continued.
From the Space Telescope Science Institute, Berry moved to a job at Tufts University and then NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory. He worked as lead animator at Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, and even got to work on the 25th-anniversary editor of Sagan’s Cosmos, the documentary he admired when he was growing up in South Carolina. He told Smithsonian that working on Cosmos felt like he had “basically been asked to clean up the Mona Lisa.”
Berry’s current work now include more artistic impressions of space. Among many other jobs and projects, he has also had six National Geographic covers and is currently working on a new project for them as well.
Looking back at his career thus far, Berry told RCL that it is interesting to take measure of how astronomy has grown, and a lot of what we’ve discovered has been because of Hubble.
“The thing about astronomy was that, we didn’t even know what some of the questions to ask were and now we do,” he said during a phone interview. “That has all changed in the course of my lifetime.”