Once every few months we’d have a field trip to some region of Arizona. There are all sorts of great memories from that. Everyone loved the field trips. The Pinacates in Mexico was a standard trip. Jay Melosh was the professor that taught us. He taught a planetary surfaces class, and planetary geophysics. But he thought it was important to get the students out of this Department and get them out in the field. There are a lot of things you just can’t teach by sitting in a classroom. I think all of my friends agree that we probably learned more on those field trips than we ever learned in class.
Jay would have assignments where every student would have to prepare a presentation for some stop you’d make along the road, so it would be some mountain or some feature or some fault you’d have to describe. Then you’d have to give handouts to everyone, and then for 15, 20 minutes you’d have to lead the discussion on what was interesting about that feature. Then we’d drive on to the next place.
So we went to the Pinacates in Mexico; we also went to Meteor Crater and also some other things up in near Flagstaff. We did other field trips to a lot of different other places: White Sands, New Mexico; Canyonlands; we went to southwest California where you have a number of playas, dry lakes, and the Blackhawk Landslide.
Almost everything that one could drive to, we went to, over the course of five or six years. We always got big turnouts, because they were fun. You had to actually do science, but on the other hand, you would see a lot of things, and then night would come, you’d break out the beer and sit around the campfire and everyone just had a great time.
A professor who was here at the time, Laurel Wilkening, had organized a trip for us to go to see Meteor Crater, and actually get a tour of the crater, with a professor who was an expert in meteor craters. The idea was, we would go up, camp out in Oak Creek Canyon, and the next day go up to Meteor Crater. Well, Cliff Stoll and Bob Howell, who were both big bicyclists, decided that the thing they would do was actually bicycle to Oak Creek Canyon. They took off a week early, and of course it’s hard to find roads that aren’t freeways that connect parts of the state. They rode back roads, all the way from here to Flagstaff.
The day before they were supposed to arrive—we were going to all meet in this camp in Oak Creek Canyon—it snowed. It snowed in Flagstaff, and they cancelled the tour. But there was no way we could get in touch with these two guys. So all the other students looked at each other and said, “What the heck, let’s go up there anyway.” So we drove up just to meet these guys and rescue them, and camped out overnight and drove back down to Tucson. But that’s the only time I’ve heard of anybody bicycling to Flagstaff.
We had this wonderful trip up to the Grand Canyon in February 1981. About seven or eight of us headed up there in a couple of cars, and we had CB radio going up I-17 toward the Grand Canyon, and listening to each other’s favorite music very loud on the tape deck. Just that great feeling of camaraderie—I think it was the first time in my life that I felt surrounded by like minds, people who really understood and enjoyed the same kinds of things that I did.
The other big thing, of course, the big cultural shift that occurred which changed everything, changed everybody’s life, was the movie Star Wars. After the movie came out, for about a year there was endless discussion of everything in that film, how they did it—It was just the only thing that people could talk about. We went and saw it I think about eighteen times. Because we didn’t have VCRs in those times, so the only way you could go and see it was to go to the movie theater.
The movie came out in the summer of ’77. In the fall of ’77, NASA was going to test the first mock-up of the shuttle. Not by launching it, because of course the shuttle lands without any power, and NASA had built a 747 that could carry the shuttle on top of it, which I guess they still use. What they were going to do was fly the shuttle on top of the 747, release it, and then just let it fall to Earth and see if you could actually land the thing. Somebody said it was like flying a brick. They were going to land it at Edwards Air Force Base.
On the spur of the moment, Nick Gautier—who was not actually a LPL student, he was a Steward student, but he hung out with us because he was doing infrared astronomy—Nick, and John Wacker, and it might have been Bob Howell I want to say—hopped into a car, probably John’s green Volvo, and drove from Tucson to Edwards Air Force Base in time to see the shuttle land, which was called the shuttle Enterprise. It never flew, it was just the mock-up. Then [they] continued from there into Los Angeles, which had one of the three theaters in the world that was showing Star Wars in 70 millimeters. Somebody knew someone that they could crash on the floor of. That was the kind of stuff that we’d do as grad students. I have a feeling that grad students today are doing equally crazy things.
When I was applying for graduate school, my astronomy advisors—because there were no planetary advisors—said, “Nick, you’re giving in to the Dark Side,” a term which was two or three years old. I’m very proud of it, and I feel very lucky that the timing worked out to realize that this was the wave of future. But clearly there were very few places in the world where you could do planetary science. The fact that there was a whole building for it was pretty astonishing to me.