Webb @ SXSW

Alberto Conti, aconti@stsci.edu, and Jason Kalirai, jkalirai@stsci.edu

The Webb education and public outreach program is a collaboration of the Institute, NASA, ESA, CSA, Northrop Grumman, and other partners.  Over the last few years, we have increased efforts to inform educators and the public about Webb, mostly adapting the proven infrastructure developed for the Hubble Space Telescope.  These efforts have included developing a website, designing and disseminating multimedia and print products, building an audience via social media, and initiating the Webb STEM Innovation Project. The goal of these activities is to tell the world about Webb’s potential to address the most profound questions we have about the universe.

In the spring of 2012, in a unique cultural context, we launched a new project for a segment of the public not previously targeted. Our idea was to bring Webb—literally—to where tens of thousands of people would gather: South by Southwest (SXSW), which is an annual festival in Austin, Texas.  The interactive portion of SXSW is a proven technology magnet, bringing together leaders in innovation from around the world.  Our proposal to SXSW Interactive was a collaboration of our Webb outreach partners, the astronomy department of the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, and Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope (WWT).

The proposal described over a dozen activities, each highlighting an aspect of Webb’s science, engineering, and technology facets and involving direct engagement with students and adults.  The organizers of SXSW Interactive selected our proposal as the centerpiece for the Science and Space Exploration theme of the festival, and the event took place on March 8–10, 2013.

The Full-Scale Model of Webb

The primary feature of our outreach event at SXSW was Northrop Grumman’s full-scale model of Webb.  The model was installed on the lawn of the Long Center for the Performing Arts, near the site of the SXSW Gaming Expo, just a short walk away from Austin’s busy downtown. The sheer size of the Webb model, 22 × 12 meters, along with its unconventional shape, drew attention and sparked curiosity from passersby. The results were amazing: over the course of three days, more than 15,000 people came by to examine Webb more closely.

With help from UT astronomers, we trained a team of over 20 graduate students to explain Webb’s design and science goals to the public. While walking visitors around the model, our staff explained the five-layer, tennis-court-sized sunshield, which cools the telescope mirrors and instruments. They explained other unique features of Webb, such as the segmented, 6.5 meter primary mirror, and the deployable nature of the entire observatory. These discussions naturally inspired all manner of follow-up questions, for example about the planned orbit of the telescope, the reason for mirrors coated with gold, and the differences between Webb and Hubble. After a tour of the full-scale model, people flowed on to the “Webb Experience” pathway, with large illustrations of the science and technology behind Webb, and moved towards the “NASA Experience” tent.

The purpose of the NASA Experience tent, which measured 33 × 12 meters, was to give the public an interactive, hands-on experience learning about Webb.  Inside the tent, people were able to actually touch real Webb test hardware, such as backplane structures and Kapton sunshield material. They could stand in front of a full-size mirror segment.  Our team set up an infrared camera to demonstrate heat radiation. UT students exhibited their own Webb-related STEM projects, pursued under our formal education programs. The NASA Experience tent was packed with hundreds of people at all times during the three-day event.