At just over 7 feet in diameter, Hubble isn't the biggest telescope in the world. Yet it's a giant -- revealing splendors of the cosmos with a depth and clarity never seen by human eyes. Peering deep into space, above the glare of earth's atmosphere, it has traced the dimmest sources of celestial light, the early sparks of creation.
"Hubble has been able to look back in time -- it's a time machine -- and observe those very first galaxies," said John Grunsfeld, deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. "Sort of toddler galaxies, actually as they were 13.2 billion years ago, in a universe that's 13.7 billion years old.
A former astronaut, Grunsfeld flew the shuttle into earth orbit five times -- three of them to service Hubble.
"I believe that the Hubble space telescope is the most significant scientific instrument ever created by humans," he said.
Hubble's first images were blurry. Astronauts had to install corrective lenses. They would visit the space telescope four more times -- each time improving its vision and scope and unveiling such wondrous sights as gas clouds billions of miles high where stars are born.
Zolt Levay is the scientist/artist who created these awesome images, translating Hubble's black and white digital codes into color -- literally painting by the numbers.
"One of the most important reasons we make these images," he said, "is to show people what Hubble is doing and show people what the universe looks like, what magnificent things are out there in the universe."
Hubble proved that black holes exist; distant planets have atmosphere, and the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.
But the end of the shuttle program means no more repair missions to the Hubble. Still, scientists say it could continue to provide an incredible array of images and information for perhaps another decade.
Meanwhile, its successor is in development. Over schedule and $1.5 billion over budget, the James Webb telescope is scheduled to be launched a million miles in space in 2018.
What Hubble did is nothing less than change our view of the universe and our place in it.