We originally didn’t have that big extension to the building. We just had the front part of the [Kuiper] Building. We were really cramped. It was way too small of a space. They had great parking in the back, though. But it was small compensation, because the offices were tiny and nobody had an office to themselves.
Behind the Business Office is now a little lecture hall. That space was occupied by maybe 20 graduate students. It was called the ghetto. That one space had these little tiny cubicles put into it, and the individual space would be about as big as a table. Typically there were two of us to a cubicle, and the doors were decorated with all kinds of outrageous stuff; clippings and preprints and cartoons. All kinds of stuff—just what people were working on or were interested in, pictures of their motorcycle or their kids or whatever.
So that was the ghetto. That forged some solidarity among the graduate students, because you’re literally on top of each other. I moved from there to a little tiny closet that Mike Nolan and I shared. It was no bigger than one of these little tiny cubicles, and we literally couldn’t swing a cat, but what was funny about it was we couldn’t both put our chairs back at the same time.
The graduate students back then lived in a ghetto behind the main office. There was an absorption tube that ran the length of the building at the time that Uwe Fink would do experiments with, measuring absorption lines of gases. They’d put gases in there and bounce light back and forth over a huge path length, and then see how much of it was absorbed in different wavelengths.
This tube ran right through the graduate student ghetto, so those of us who had an office on the outside wall of the building would have the tube going through it, like a shelf in our office. I put up curtains and a bed, and it was pretty cool.
We were a pretty close-knit bunch back then. When I came in they were also something of an older group. As a consequence we didn’t respect authority a whole lot. We gave the poor faculty a bit of a hard time through our tenure.
That was also the era of magic keys, where all the graduate students would file keys down so you could open all the doors in the building. It was kind of a rite of passage. Everybody would always deny it.
One of the fun projects that I was involved in, and contributed to the delay of my graduation, was we build a prototype Mars rover called the Mars Ball. There was an idea that a French scientist had had about how to make a rover that had squishy wheels. Each sector of a wheel could be inflated and deflated, and if you had a flat part of the wheel on the bottom you could sort of fall forwards by deflating one sector and then raise up in back by moving the air there. It sounded like a really cool approach to roving on Mars, where something could be big and dumb; just roll over these obstacles.
We built the prototype of this. At one point we thought it was going to be 16 feet tall. That slid over sideways, so we made it six or eight feet tall. It was a very challenging project: We were there with sewing machines, sewing bags, and buying blowers. We got a NASA grant for it. In the end we were able to show that this device would work. We took it to a Mars conference in Washington D.C. where it rolled around and climbed over obstacles.
But the idea was hinged on the idea that you wanted to send something to Mars that was big and dumb. The lesson that I’ve adhered to ever since then is never bet against the computer, because small and smart has turned out, as you can tell from the current rovers, to be the way to go. But it was a fun project. Most of the students were involved and had different roles. I did the computers; other people did the blowers or the fabric of the wheels. It was fun to do something that was so different from the other work.
Other things that started in my tenure were Jay Melosh’s field geology trips. I have very good memories of the first of those, where we went up to the Flagstaff area and got to hike down into Meteor Crater. I remember seeing impact melt, real impact melt, there on the crater wall and being very excited about that. That was in the spring of ’85. I guess those have continued since then. So that was a fine tradition to get going.
We had star parties sometimes. There were a lot of people who were interested in astronomy on an amateur level as well as on a professional level, and we’d borrow the Celestron 14”s that we used for occultation work, and we’d take them up to Mt. Hopkins and camp out overnight and see the sights of the sky out there. That was another highlight.
There was the Friday evenings at the Big A. I don’t know if the Big A is still there, but that was a little bar up on Speedway and Campbell where Brad Smith and Mike Drake and whatever grad students felt like going along would spend the last couple hours of the day, every Friday evening there. That was a nice start to our Friday evening socializing.