Lots of talk about the budget this week – and science funding is still uncertain. But as these examples from our Cosmos & Culture exhibition show, astronomers have always had to rely on a combination of persuasion, impressive results and skilled PR to keep their work funded.
Tycho Brahe’s observations of the ‘new star’ of 1572 (a supernova explosion) impressed the Danish King Frederick II. He subsidised Tycho’s research by building the finest astronomical observatory of the times. The next King stopped the subsidy, so Tycho left for Prague to work for the German emperor Rudolf II – an early example of the ‘brain drain’.
It’s one of Britain’s most striking landmarks, but Jodrell Bank‘s giant Lovell Telescope almost didn’t make it. In the 1950s, under a Government investigation into the spiralling costs of construction, it seemed that it would be abandoned. But it turned out that the telescope could track the newly-launched Soviet satellites, and it became strategically important. In 2008, the telescope again faced losing funding. One joker put it up for sale on eBay. It was given a reprieve, and continues to be used for important research.
Hubble is probably the most famous telescope ever – but it took many years to get off the ground. Work began in the 1970s. The US Congress insisted that NASA’s plans be scaled back, and the telescope had to be down-sized. But astronomers lobbied for funds, the European Space Agency came on board, and a 1986 launch looked possible. Then, the Space Shuttle fleet was grounded after the Challenger explosion. Hubble had to wait in clean storage, with costs mounting, until 1990. But since then, with five servicing missions to keep it upgraded, it’s been a huge success. You can follow the story of the last servicing mission in our new IMAX movie.