Heinrich’s Astronomical Ignorance

New Mexico’s junior senator was at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory last week, touting the taxpayer funds he has “secured” for the facility’s interferometer.

The MRO, adjacent to the Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, is located in the Magdalena Mountains, west of Socorro. Built and operated by New Mexico Tech, the observatory’s “partners” include the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, and NASA.

Heinrich’s grabbed $5 million for the interferometer, and — of course — is promising more to come. That’s standard operating procedure for fedpols in the Land of Enchantment, who continue to believe that Keynesian “public investments” will produce abundant jobs and soaring incomes back home. There’s zero evidence to support such a view, but parceling out the science-and-tech pork guarantees a reliable stream of votes.

In contrast to the “progressive” vision of endless federal subsidization of space science, the early history of observatories in America shows how nongovernment funding can support the study of the heavens. In 2008, NASA’s Alexander MacDonald penned a brief analysis of “the dominant role that private sources played in the funding of early American [observatories].” James Lick, for example, “the richest man in California,” spent a whopping 17.5 percent of his “entire estate” on the Lick Observatory. Other facilities built during the pre-National Science Foundation, pre-NASA era include Hopkins Observatory, Cincinnati Observatory, Harvard College Observatory, Georgetown University Astronomical Observatory, Detroit Observatory, Mount Wilson Observatory, Lowell Observatory, and Palomar Observatory.

The MRO has a military role — it helps monitor objects in space for the Air Force. But the feds themselves admitted, as the observatory was being planned, that satellite- and missile-tracking served a “secondary purpose.” The “primary purpose” was to be “education and research” by New Mexico Tech and its partners.

MacDonald found that space-science “projects of comparative relative magnitude” were common before the mid-1900s. Given that Washington’s publicly held and intergovernmental debt now tops $19.8 trillion, let’s hope for a back-to-the-future return to privately funded observatories.

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