The Astronomical Cost of a Mulligan

A mulligan in casual golf is taken when a player repeats a bad stroke without penalty in cases where the round’s participants agree to allowing a mulligan. The concept of a mulligan is often extended to include situations outside of the game where a second attempt is desired in order to supplant a less than desirable outcome after a first attempt. But often in life there is no mulligan at all, or if there is a do-over, it is not without penalty.

In purchasing astronomical equipment, there is often a temptation to select a less expensive and therefore less capable item than the one really desired in order to save money. As Give a Mouse a Telescope [add link] illustrates, astronomers’ satisfaction with such an item might be soon give way to the need for a similar but more expensive and more capable model. I will call this do over an astronomical mulligan. As astronomical mulligans may be necessary or unnecessary, As they can be expensive, they are best thought through before making a purchase that might require a do-over.

An extreme example of an astronomical mulligan that could have happened would be my thinking as I considered building an observatory several years ago. Initially, I thought that I would spec my observatory to support a 10” SCT refractor, which I thought would be plenty of capability for my needs. The 10” refractor would, after all, be quite a move up from my 4” refractor. The requirement to support and house the 10” telescope translated to a certain size concrete base in the ground, a certain size pier, and telescope mount of a certain capacity, and a certain building size. If I remember correctly, I could have pulled this off for about $25,000.

But I kept thinking, and I wondered if I would be happy with a 10” telescope forever, and if I should consider a 12” telescope. And my thinking eventually progressed to a 14”, and on to 16”. The specifications and the costs for the telescope, base, pier, mount and building do not scale linearly. In fact, they scale quite exponentially. My estimated price tag for an observatory based on a 16” telescope came to about $90,000! A ridiculous amount of money, so I ultimately elected to not build an observatory at all.

Now think if I had built the 10” version of the observatory, later became unhappy with it, and subsequently decided to build another version that would support a larger telescope. Assume in this case that I had skipped the 12” and 14” editions of the observatory and elected to go with the 16” version of the observatory. None of the five major components (base, pier, mount, building, or telescope) from the 10” observatory could be used in the 16” observatory. My costs would be $25K for the first observatory plus $90K for the observatory that I really wanted, for a grand total of $115K to get my forever observatory. This analysis would be much worse if I had built three observatories before finally arriving at the 16” version, never mind explaining four observatories in the back yard to my wife.

My observatory considerations are an extreme and perhaps an iron clad example of when to think ahead in order to avoid a mulligan and make the “forever” acquisition up front instead of progressing through three acquisition iterations beforehand.

Sometimes planning for a mulligan can make sense. If just starting out in astrophotography, for instance, is going straight for the expensive full frame DSO forever camera at the outset a wise decision? Maybe it makes better sense to gauge one’s interest and capabilities by starting with a less capable DSO camera and declare the mulligan and buy the forever camera only if the experience with the first camera goes well.

From a value perspective, this might be a reasonable approach as there are value offsets to the cost of the first camera. The obvious one with dollar signs attached is being able to recover some of the money spent by selling the first camera after moving on to the forever camera. But perhaps of even greater value is the confidence gained before spending the big bucks on the full frame camera.

Astronomy is expensive, even on a good night, so astronomers should strive to make cost effective purchases that meet their needs. Thinking through mulligan scenarios is a way to do this. To plan for or to avoid a mulligan are equally valid considerations that can help an astronomer make the best use of their astronomy dollars.

© 2021 Jim Johnson

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