Scroll down to read this post.


Please consider supporting my work, as I take no advertisements nor accept any sponsors in order to keep the website clean, easy to read, and to avoid any accusations of conflict of interest. Your support leaves me entirely independent, able to say whatever I think while being free from censorship or reprisals.


You can support me either by giving a one-time contribution or a regular subscription. There are five ways of doing so:


1. Zelle: This is the only internet method that charges no fees. All you have to do is use the Zelle link at your internet bank and give my name and email address (zimmerman at nasw dot org). What you donate is what I get.


2. Patreon: Go to my website there and pick one of five monthly subscription amounts, or by making a one-time donation.

3. A Paypal Donation:

4. A Paypal subscription:

5. Donate by check, payable to Robert Zimmerman and mailed to
Behind The Black
c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652

Astronomers release fantasy proposals for government telescopes in the 2020s

The astronomical community today released its newest decadal survey, a outline of what major new telescope projects that community recommends the federal government should fund for the next ten years.

More details here.

This is I think the seventh such decadal survey since the first in the early 1960s. In the past these surveys prompted the construction of numerous space telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, and many others. Until 2000 these survey were enormously influential, which is why space-based astronomy boomed in the 1980s and 1990s.

Now I call it a fantasy because I think it unlikely that most of its proposals — especially the space-based projects — will see fruition, based on the recent history in this century. For example, the 2001 survey recommended the James Webb Space Telescope among many other recommendations. The cost overruns of that project however eventually caused almost all the other space-based proposals to be cancelled, not only in the 2000s but in the 2010s as well. Furthermore, the 2010 survey called for the building of WFIRST, another Webb-like big space telescope that is now called the Roman Telescope, and that project’s high cost and complexity has further forced the elimination of almost all other new space telescopes. Nor has Roman been built and launched in the 2010s as proposed. It is still under development, with the same kinds of cost orverruns and delayed seen with Webb, which means in the 2020s most of the new proposals in this latest decadal survey will have to take a back seat to it, and will likely never get built.

Prove of my analysis is in the report’s press release:

The first mission to enter this program should be an infrared/optical/ultraviolet (IR/O/UV) telescope — significantly larger than the Hubble Space Telescope — that can observe planets 10 billion times fainter than their star, and provide spectroscopic data on exoplanets, among other capabilities. The report says this large strategic mission is of an ambitious scale that only NASA can undertake and for which the U.S. is uniquely situated to lead. At an estimated cost of $11 billion, implementation of this IR/O/UV telescope could begin by the end of the decade, after the mission and technologies are matured, and a review considers it ready for implementation. If successful, this would lead to a launch in the first half of the 2040 decade. [emphasis mine]

Proposing something that won’t be built for two decades is absurd. And the cost is even more absurd, as it is ten times what Hubble cost and seems more designed as a long term jobs program where nothing will get built but money will continue to pour in endlessly to the contractors and astronomers hired. That is what Webb and Roman essentially became.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Col Beausabre

    ” designed as a long term jobs program”

    An excellent description of the decadal survey program. A bunch of people make a nice pile of money flying around to posh hotels/resorts with dining and the entertainment on the expense account – all on the taxpayers dime. At the end of which comes a nice printed and bound report with glossy pictures that amounts to nothing

  • Gary

    Would there be enough money in selling telescope time to invent private telescopes? I’d bet Musk could get one designed and up for 10 pct of the money and a tenth the time. Also, and I’m sure there’s been a post by Bob on this, but it seems that there should be research going on to launch cube sat clusters to emulate mirror telescopes.

  • Gary

    “invest in private telescopes.” Not invent. :)

  • Gary: In a word, yes. If the astronomical community did what NASA’s manned program has been doing, and shift to buying its services from the private market, they would get the telescopes they want very quickly, for very little money.

  • Skunk Bucket

    It seems to me that a lot of the cost and time of designing and building a space telescope must be spent in painstakingly policing every gram that goes into it. With launch costs historically being astronomical, it would make sense to prioritize that way. Now though, on the cusp of far less expensive access to space, I would hope that the relaxed weight budgets would allow for quicker and less expensive telescope design and construction. This next couple of decades ought to usher in a real renaissance in the orbital observation of the heavens.

  • Richard M

    The idea of sinkng $10 billion into bespoke flagship telescopes with hundreds of deployment critical failure points, that cannot be serviced, really needs to be urgently revisited. We can’t go on like this, even if JWST somehow manages (as I hope it does) a flawless deployment.

    A Ford class carrier costs this much, and it’s considered a first class strategic asset. But a Ford has a crew on board to repair things that break, and it can return to port if something breaks that the crew can’t easily fix.

  • Jim Schmidt

    “this large strategic mission is of an ambitious scale that only NASA can undertake”

    This kind of thinking needs to go away.

  • Steve Miller

    Shouldn’t the astronomy community be thinking a bit more expansively. Consider the capabilities of Starship to carry 100+ ton payload and large volume payload to low earth orbit. It could put a darn large optical replacement for Hubble up there. I’m with Skunk Bucket in let’s build something that doesn’t push beyond state of the art and is readily doable. Maybe it could be placed nearby one of the proposed commercial space stations for future ease of maintenance. Maybe such a design would be cheap enough to build several for the price of one flagship. You want IR or UV capability? Just put up another large bird using same basic design.

    By the way, if we are not pushing into bleeding edge or beyond technology then couldn’t NASA or better yet, private owners bid the project out for a firm fixed price and delivery date?

  • Cloudy

    Maybe these projects will have a little bit of a better chance. It is getting harder to build a scientifically productive, huge observatory on Earth. Politically, economically and technically space is looking better each decade.

  • Jeff Wright

    Larger LVs should make for simpler designs. At least the Ford carriers can have swappable reactors.

  • MDN

    Steve Miller is on the right track, but the solution isn’t “several” medium/large scopes, but a SWARM of modest sized scopes on the model of (and integrated with) the StarLink network.

    Just spit balling here but consider the flexibility, utility, and reliability of something like a standardized 2-3m design deployed at a rate of 10 or so each year on a continuing basis. Sensor suites would vary as needed, and evolve over time with technology advancements. They could cooperate when necessary to increase sensitivity and provide multispectral coverage, have a stretch goal of supporting optical interferometry a la VLT and Keck when deployed in formations, and operate on MANY different more modest investigations when allocated separately.

    I bet a $1B budget could get an initial constellation of at least 20 or more scopes deployed including the launch costs. Also, you could draw lots of international and academic partners to the effort for specialty sensor packages, coronagraphs that fly in formation with a scope for exoplanet studies, etc. And by tying it into StarLink you’d have a high bandwidth backbone network to facilitate global control and datalink needs with no impact on our deep space network.

    My 2 cents : )

  • My readers all get it. Put a lot of relatively small and inexpensive optical telescopes into orbit, say 2 meters (78 inches) in diameter (slightly less than Hubble) and the payback in astronomical discoveries will be enormous, and will happen now, not in 2040 as proposed by this absurd decadal survey.

    For example, the mirror on Kepler was I think 33 inches. As small as that is, comparable to many amateur homebuilt telescopes, the space telescope discovered thousands of transiting exoplanets in one small patch in the sky. Imagine what twenty such telescopes could do.

  • wayne

    Mr. Z.,
    -top of the last quote-box
    “Prove of my analysis is in…”

    Ref-” Put a lot of relatively small and inexpensive optical telescopes into orbit, say 2 meters…”

    Yes, If we’re taking a Vote, sign me up. Two or more Hubble size telescopes, with current technology optics & sensors = a better investment.

    Universe In A Mirror

  • Humphreyrobot

    Instead…like flipping a scope to make the Universe smaller so as to see a bigger slice.

  • Lee Stevenson

    Deeply unsettling, and very unusual, but I agree with pretty much every word said on this thread.
    Groundbreaking technology is important, but definitely the work of the private sector. The James Webb shows what happens if you let government get involved in developing new tech. ( As does SLS etc, etc.)

    NASA is fantastic at deep space exploration, which is a pretty established tech now. Radiation hardening is understood, both solar and themo from plutonium power systems… In the bag.

    Human launch, reusability.. not so much. It’s easy to extrapolate out that big complicated systems would be better off tendered out. ( As to it’s credit, NASA is doing with Artimus.)

    Government dollars ( and Euros, and Krona ) should always be pumped into space exploration, our future can only be beyond the Earth, but I agree with all here that very often the ones that propose these projects, and invite the proposals have zero idea of the financial tree they are asking to nest upon.

  • Edward

    “Our preferred architecture is the most expensive one, with the most technologies that need to be developed,” says Gaudi, co-chair of the HabEx team.

    This is how we ended up with JWST costing so much and taking so long. Rather than develop the technology as secondary payloads on less expensive missions, they want to develop it on an expensive mission in which the technology is mission critical. This is foolish and prevents many other useful missions to go unfunded and good science never seen.

    “All the other architectures are less expensive and require fewer technologies to enable the science, but of course they also can’t do as much science.”

    This may be true of each of the others, but we can get so many of the others that the amount of science is more in the long run. Develop the technology first, then use it on the expensive mission. The science from this method may take longer to obtain, or it may not, considering all the trouble the development causes, but less money is wasted and more overall science is accomplished with this method. With a little patience, the same science will eventually be done for an overall increase in the amount of science accomplished.

    These scientists are not acting like adults but like impetuous, impatient children who want it now, like Veruca Salt in the book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” As with Veruca, they don’t get it now. Instead, it gets delayed by all the very expensive trouble they get into with the new technology.

  • Jay

    Thanks Wayne for that video. Watching the photos and history of Hubble was refreshing, even with the problems. Maybe Bob should change the title of his book to “Hubble: Triumphant”.

  • wayne

    Glad you liked the Hubble video! (It’s not Mr. Z’s favorite, but I like it.)

    tangentially related– you might like some BBC video of Apollo 8 and Apollo 13 as well. (The BBC wiped and/or destroyed most all of their video recordings from that time period, precious little remains. Compare and contrast British coverage with American news.)
    I have 8 BBC clips posted at the Archive for safekeeping. (There’s some amateur super-8 mm film of the Apollo 8 launch as well…)

  • Jay

    Actually your video of the presentation brought up a point I totally forgot. During the last Hubble servicing mission, the Soft Capture Mechanism (SCM) was placed on Hubble. The SCM is the same as the Low Impact Docking System (LIDS) that Orion, Dragon, Cygnus, and Starliner use. I was wondering if there was a way to stick the equipment in the trunk of Dragon and do a sixth service mission?

    I know I have seen the astronauts use the SpaceX suits for the flight, but has an EVA from the Dragon been thought of? Can an EVA be done from Dragon?

  • Jay: In its present configuration, Dragon capsule cannot do a servicing mission to Hubble. No robot arm, and that will be essential to provide a base of operations for any spacewalker.

  • Jay

    Thanks for the info Bob. You are right, they would need an arm and probably modify the Dragon for EVA use as well.

  • Jay: By the way, I am not saying it can’t be done. I am just trying to point out that none of this is ever very simple.

    Star Trek and most modern sci-fi movies have made too many people, even engineers, become nonchalant about these challenges. They think by simply changing the frap-a-stat to higher modulation for ten seconds, the frequency of the failing transistor will become stabilized and the ship will be saved.

    It don’t work that way in real life.

    And I think Jeff Bezos is slowing learning this lesson as well. :)

  • wayne

    Star Trek Technobabble

  • wayne

    back to reality….

    How The Space Shuttle Started Its Engines And Launched
    Scott Manley (November 6, 2021)

  • Edward

    From the SpaceRef article:

    The report says this large strategic mission [the first mission] is of an ambitious scale that only NASA can undertake and for which the U.S. is uniquely situated to lead. At an estimated cost of $11 billion, implementation of this IR/O/UV telescope could begin by the end of the decade, after the mission and technologies are matured, and a review considers it ready for implementation. If successful, this would lead to a launch in the first half of the 2040 decade.

    Robert responded: “Proposing something that won’t be built for two decades is absurd. And the cost is even more absurd, as it is ten times what Hubble cost and seems more designed as a long term jobs program where nothing will get built but money will continue to pour in endlessly to the contractors and astronomers hired. That is what Webb and Roman essentially became.

    Robert and I disagree a bit. At least the plan is to ensure the the technology is mature before building the telescope. It is a bit like Gravity Probe-B, which spent two or three decades developing the technologies needed, and during this development period there were many papers and patents issued, and several PhD degrees earned.

    I am very much in horror with the initial cost estimate. How much of this is to be used for technology maturation and how much for building, launching, and operating the telescope? No matter how this is distributed, the cost is enormous. Surely we can find a way to do the same science for less cost.

    Five years after beginning this first mission, the report recommends NASA start preliminary studies of both a Far-IR strategic mission and a high-resolution X-ray large strategic mission with target costs of $3 billion to $5 billion.

    Even if these target costs are for both, rather than for each, it is also very expensive.

    I am reminded of a time in the late 1970s or early 1980s when many people noted that the costs of military aircraft were skyrocketing. The joke was that if it kept up like that, pretty soon the entire military budget would go to building only one fighter jet. When the B-2 bomber was put into production, Congress looked at the enormous cost and decided to build a single bomber each year at a cost of $2 billion (1990s dollars) rather than build two at a cost of $3 billion ($1.5 billion each) — not counting development costs. The joke almost came true. How much was spent building the F-22 and how many were made?

    The cost of one aircraft alone is an estimated $334 million which includes research and development (unit cost of $150 million). The Air Force originally wanted 700 F-22s to be produced but had to cancel production just shy of 200 because they were already over-budget.

    The flight cost per hour for an F-22 is roughly $70,000.

    This number means the cost of ownership, including modifications over the lifetime of the jet. In 2014, the F-22 fleet required over 40 hours of maintenance per flight hour. It seems that as the fleet has aged, the maintenance requirements have increased considerably. The F-22 cost per lifecycle of one Raptor is an estimated $334 million.

    We seem to be looking at a similar phenomenon in government space telescopes. They are getting more and more expensive, and if it keeps up like this, pretty soon we will only be able to afford to build one every decade.

    Neither article said that the decadal report recommended rebuilding or improving the Arecibo radio telescope.

Readers: the rules for commenting!


No registration is required. I welcome all opinions, even those that strongly criticize my commentary.


However, name-calling and obscenities will not be tolerated. First time offenders who are new to the site will be warned. Second time offenders or first time offenders who have been here awhile will be suspended for a week. After that, I will ban you. Period.


Note also that first time commenters as well as any comment with more than one link will be placed in moderation for my approval. Be patient, I will get to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *