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The Long Space AgeThe Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War$
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Alexander MacDonald

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780300219326

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300219326.001.0001

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Public Spirit and Patronage: American Observatories

Public Spirit and Patronage: American Observatories

(p.54) 2 Public Spirit and Patronage: American Observatories
The Long Space Age

Alexander MacDonald

Yale University Press

In the first half of the nineteenth century, American astronomical observatories were instruments for the personal exploration of the planets and the stars as well as monuments of civic development. Their value was often more symbolic than scientific and they represented significant expenditures for the individuals and communities that undertook them. Their costs were equivalent, in modern terms, to small robotic NASA probes. The cost of these facilities grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the Lick, Mount Wilson, and Mount Palomar Observatories representing major, billion-dollar equivalent investments in space exploration capabilities. These early American observatories were predominantly privately funded. Over forty observatories are investigated, only two of which were built with significant government support. The motivations that dominated the financing of these “lighthouses of the sky” were personal ones—intrinsic interest in the heavens and scientific curiosity, or the desire to signal status through monuments and legacies. This earliest period of American space exploration was thus one with an overridingly private context, with social entrepreneurs like Ormsby McKnight Mitchell and George Ellery Hale selling the mystique and adventure of the heavens to the wealthy elite and the general public. Major figures from the 19th century were involved in funding astronomical observatories, include Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

Keywords:   Astronomy, Astronomical Observatories, George Ellery Hale, Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller, Telescopes, History of Astronomy

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