Way back in the beginning Kuiper and that bunch were advising the lunar astronauts what to do when they got to the Moon. To give them a little bit of ground realism, they used to haul them down to a volcanic area just over the border of Mexico called the Pinacate Mountains. It’s a volcanic field. There are cinder cones and calderas, the geologists call it, which is basically a circular hole in the ground that’s created by some kind of explosion.
So they took the astronauts down there at least once and they went around with their rock hammers and picked samples and stuff like that. Bill and Dale and Alan were part of that. They were very geologically-oriented, at least in those days.
Then they started going down there just on their own for fun. I used to go down there with them. We’ve made many trips down to the Pinacates—go down there, camp out, take some pictures. My buddy Chuck Wood did his master’s thesis down there, marching across some of the craters with a gravity-measuring device and a magnetic field-measuring device, which gives you some clue as to what’s under the ground there—big masses of basaltic rock have a little more density, so you get a microscopic extra gravity down there.
So some real science was done down there, but it was also a lot of fun. Nobody else went there. We pretty much had it to ourselves. Then it got to be more widely known, of course, and it suddenly became popular to go out into nature, so lots of people started going down there. The Mexicans turned it into a National Park, and now there’s a bunch of rules and regulations. Hardly anybody ever goes down there anymore. But in the old days it was a great thing. It was the closest thing to going to the Moon that we could do.
In the late sixties I had long hair, and marched in some protests and whatnot, and so Kuiper thought I was sort of the resident hippie of the Lunar Lab. But he knew me, so he knew I was all right. He would come to work every Saturday morning and he would get lonely or something. Every once in a while he would send the student worker over to my apartment, and she’d knock on the door. I’d usually be asleep—this was Saturday mornings—and she’d say, “Dr. Kuiper wants to talk to you.”
So I’d go over there and he’d just ask me a few questions about something and then he would start storytelling. He told me about after World War II when he was trying to find [Wernher] von Braun, who was the German rocket designer, because the United States wanted to bring von Braun back to the U.S. before the Russians got him. He had part of a German rocket motor that von Braun had built in his office, which he showed me, and he talked about his early days as an astronomer. It was really amazing to have him need an audience, and I was the audience.
He was concerned that the students were going to riot at the University; that they’d be so upset with the U.S. government that they’d riot. He thought because the Lunar Lab was funded by the federal government that they might attack our building sometime. So I had to assure him several times that I didn’t think the students knew the Lunar Lab was funded by the government, or cared.
At that time Kitt Peak had only one telescope, and it was the 36-inch telescope, which has since been replaced with something bigger. We had to drive up the old road, which is still maintained as an emergency egress, but it was a terrible dusty old road. On several occasions we would drive up there in the back of a pickup truck, Kuiper and I and one other student hanging on more or less for dear life, because our old car broke down and we had to go up that way.
It must have been ’69, I’m sitting there in my assistant professor office, and the phone rings. It’s Bruce Murray, who’s a very well known planetary scientist, who was Head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at that time. I picked up my phone and here’s Bruce Murray saying “We’ve got this probe going to Mars, would you like to be on the imaging team?”
So it’s falls right into my lap. I contrast that with today: When a new mission gets announced they’ll be 200 bright, bushy-tailed scientists with fresh PhDs trying to get on that mission. Everybody’s trying to get on. Usually you have like ten people initially and maybe you add another ten if the mission gets launched successfully. Six of those will be the old, established people in the field anyway, so then there are two or three or four slots for young scientists who have to compete with all these other scientists.
I’m so lucky, I’m just at the right time and the phone rings and Bruce Murray puts me on his imaging team. It really was kind of a golden age of science. Kennedy had said that we’re going to the Moon, so we’re all engaged in that program. There was very few of us in planetary science at that time. Kuiper’s first group of students included Toby Owen and Carl Sagan before him—Carl Sagan had come out of the University of Chicago when Kuiper was back there—so you have Sagan and Toby Owen and Cruikshank and Binder and me, and a handful of other students at a few other scattered universities at that time. It was a great time to be doing this stuff, because there weren’t very many young people coming out with degrees. Bruce Murray has to scrape the bottom of a nearly empty barrel to get me.
I was very lucky. We were all pretty good friends. We’re still friends today, almost fifty years later. We all would work together and go to movies together; I remember when we saw West Side Story, and we all came out walking in a line and snapping our fingers like we were the Jets.
It was really a transformative thing in my life to be at the Lunar Lab. I came being a person who was fascinated with space and science fiction, and I had built a small telescope when I was in high school and looked at the Moon and the planets. But being at the Lunar Lab I was immediately in contact with the most important planetary scientist on the Earth, Kuiper, and the people I worked with, the guys who were graduate students, Hartmann and Cruikshank and Binder, were all doing neat research things.
It was a place where I saw there were opportunities and I could do more and have a more exciting life than perhaps I might have thought. If I hadn’t gone there maybe I would’ve ended up being a shoe salesman or something. Again, the word lucky keeps coming up. I was lucky to have that chance.