Students who in the past have not been able to experience some of
NASA’s spectacular discoveries now have a unique opportunity to touch
the stars.

Some of the most majestic space images from NASA’s Hubble Space
Telescope are now part of a special Braille book that combines tactile
illustrations with striking images of planets, star clusters and
nebulae, as viewed by Hubble.

The book, “Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy,” is
the brainchild of Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, an astronomer and faculty
member at DePaul University, Chicago. He undertook the project to allow
visually impaired students the same opportunities as those who are
sighted to engage themselves in space science.

Teaming up with astronomer and author Noreen Grice, Beck-Winchatz
developed this much-needed space science resource book for the blind
with a $10,000 Hubble Space Telescope grant for education programs.

In 1999, Grice published “Touch The Stars,” a book with touchable
pictures based on drawings of constellations, comets, galaxies and
other astronomical objects. “I was fascinated by Grice’s book,”
recalled Beck-Winchatz. “I thought it would be intriguing to create
similar tactile pictures based on real Hubble Space Telescope images,
but I didn’t think this could possibly be a new idea. There are 10
million visually impaired people in the United States; it seemed
outrageous that these resources would not be available before now.”

Grice, who is based in Boston, originally began experimenting with
techniques to make astronomy more accessible for the visually impaired
more than 15 years ago after having observed a group of blind visitors
at the Charles Hayden Planetarium in Boston. Ever since that
experience, she has worked on ways to make science more accessible to
the blind and other people with physical challenges.

To allow both blind and sighted readers to enjoy the Hubble images in
“Touch the Universe,” Grice developed clear tactile overlays for each
image. The overlays were sent to Benning Wentworth, a science teacher
and astronomy enthusiast at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the
Blind in Colorado Springs. His students evaluated each image for
clarity and provided important suggestions for needed changes.

“Based on the students’ comments, I was able to revise the images and
make aluminum master plates,” said Grice. With the final plates,
plastic overlays were produced in a heat vacuum, or thermoform,
machine. The tactile thermoform pages, placed in front of the color HST
images, make these images accessible to readers of all visual

The book is for middle school students, high school students, and
adults alike and is expected to attract the attention of mainstream
educators, a number of whom already use Grice’s first tactile book in
science classes. Four hundred copies will be printed in the first run,
and the book will sell for slightly above production cost so earnings
can offset future updates and production of a second edition.

For Beck-Winchatz, helping to create such a valuable resource tool has
been rewarding. “Scientists often live in ivory towers,” said Beck-
Winchatz. “It is only through partnerships like this that we get to
share what we are doing. However, educational endeavors like this one
require money. The grants for education from NASA’s Office of Space
Science allow us to branch out of pure science and use some of the
results of research to affect the lives of the general public, and in
this case, the blind and visually impaired.”

Photos of students from the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind
examining images from “Touch the Universe” are available on the
Internet at: