|Early Days Gerard Kuiper Missions to the Moon Telescopes & Research|
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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.
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