Privately Funded Observatories an Analog for Space Exploration?

I saw on twitter that Alex MacDonald’s paper on comparing the private funding of astronomical observatories and space exploration is finally up.  It’s a fascinating read.  I met Alex at New Space conference last year, and he showed me some of his research.  His hypothesis is that astronomical observatories were the “space exploration” of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a large percentage of that was funded by wealthy individuals who wanted to leave their mark on society. He points out that a lot of the discovery-driven, privately-funded observatories of the day were actually significant expenditures compared to the wealth of the individual funding them or of the nation’s GDP as a whole.  His point was that the Bezoses and Musks of the day were just continuing what used to be the dominant trend.

Here’s the link.

As I said, very well worth the read, since it’s only 3pgs.  I think he may be working on a more detailed paper as part of a Master’s Thesis or PhD dissertation, though I could be misremembering.

And now back to continued light blogging.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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10 Responses to Privately Funded Observatories an Analog for Space Exploration?

  1. Hmm.. be nice to extend this analysis back to “exploration” in general.. almost all of it was privately funded too.

  2. Trent,
    I think he actually makes that point in his bigger paper. At least he was making that point when he was explaining the concept to me back at NewSpace 2009.


  3. Ben Brockert says:

    The citation of the table on page 2 is: “Source: MacDonald, A., The Remote Space Age: An Economic History of Space Exploration from Galileo to Gagarin forthcoming doctoral dissertation at the University of Oxford”

    So it seems likely there’s a forthcoming doctoral dissertation on the topic.

  4. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Good catch Ben! I’ll have to ping him about getting a copy when I actually have the bandwidth to review it…

  5. Josh Cryer says:

    That’s excellent! Would love to see a review of it if you get it before he actually gets his doctorate and he doesn’t mind (I’ve found asking for a dissertation before hand gets friendly denials for obvious reasons, but I’m just a regular schmo).

  6. Tom Billings says:

    One might well find it of interest that private funding for these “blue sky/black sky” projects has revived in the era of decreased marginal tax rates for those “evil” rich folk at the top end of the income tax levels. If those decreased marginal rates are allowed to die, we may see another lapse in such investment, because the money will go to some squealing porker’s good friends. In Space Politics comments, the Gary C. troll would no doubt approve of that. I doubt many others there would, or anywhere in the Space Community. The pols want control of the money so that voters are dependent on them. Private donations, or investment, for that matter, short-circuits that.

  7. Heinrich Monroe says:

    I’m not sure what the big deal is here. Federal agencies were created to provide federal oversight to the kind of scientifically high-value investments that had before been the responsibility of private donors. It is of some interest that the scale size for what one might call epochal projects and missions in astronomy has been pretty consistent, in fixed year dollars, over time in the U.S. I mean, why isn’t anyone working on a $10B observatory? Oh wait! JWST may well be headed there!

    It’s a little odd to make this comparison under the umbrella of “space exploration” rather than “astronomy”. For the former, you’d really have to include ISS, the budget for which has absolutely no counterpart in private investment for astronomy.

  8. Karl Hallowell says:

    Federal agencies were created to provide federal oversight to the kind of scientifically high-value investments that had before been the responsibility of private donors.

    I think this “oversight” is part of the reason there was a slowdown in private space exploration after the Second World War. What’s the point of putting a billion dollars into an orbital research station, for example, when government can trump your investment by a couple orders of magnitude? Now that government oversight is starting to fail in some parts of space development, we’re returning to the private R&D model.

  9. Heinrich Monroe says:

    “I think this “oversight” is part of the reason there was a slowdown in private space exploration after the Second World War.”

    The main reason there was a slowdown in “private space exploration” in the latter half of the last century was specifically because space science was better done by instruments in space, for which private donors had little or no advantage in creating, and for which having your name on the door wasn’t that conspicuous. Such instruments also had very finite lifetimes and, as such, were not effective monuments to philanthropy.

  10. Simon says:

    As someone who works at a private observatory (Lowell), I gotta say, it’s not easy. Most of our research funding comes from NASA (competing with universities for grants), and we’ve just barely been able to pull off our new 4.3 meter telescope without significant government funding by means of partnering with Discovery Communications (thus the Discovery Channel Telescope) and Boston University. Still, though, a telescope is not nearly as risky as even an unmanned space mission (which can crash in so many ways), so going the philanthropy route isn’t going to easy…

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