The Department of Planetary Sciences

Michael Drake

The lab in 1973 was quite small. Now we have three large buildings. At the time we only had the old part of Kuiper, built by NASA in 1965. We didn’t even occupy the entire building; I don’t know how many employees we had then, but somewhere between 30 and 60 would be my guess.

It was, from my point of view, a strange environment. My degrees were in geology. I’d had some experience at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory being surrounding by astronomers, and that helped a lot, because I had learned to talk to people in very different disciplines.

In coming here, it was very much like that. Most of the people came out of the discipline of astronomy, but not all of them. It’s like the tower of Babel; you talk in your own language and your own jargon, and communicating across fields is surprisingly difficult. It took a few years before I think most of us began to understand what motivated the other ones, what we were really saying. I think it helped us to speak in clearer, plain English and minimize the jargon, because we came from such different backgrounds.

Overall, it was stimulating; it was exciting. I loved Arizona from the beginning. I grew up in England and had 21 years of rain and clouds, so I was ready for at least 21 years of sunshine. Amazingly, I’m still here in 2007; that’s 34 years later.

Robert Strom

There were not very many people doing planetary science. We were probably the only ones that had a group, you know, a lunar and planetary laboratory, just to study the solar system. We were it, in the world. Now it’s developed into a world-class facility. There’s a department as well as a laboratory. We started teaching in the early seventies, and now it’s grown a lot larger. And the subject matter has grown enormously too.

Martin Tomasko

I came here when the place was just a research lab. There were three groups: There was Gerard Kuiper, who did infrared astronomy and had Hal Larson and Uwe Fink. There was Frank Low who did infrared astronomy with George Rieke, and then there was Tom Gehrels, who had a couple of people who did polarization measurements of various things. But it was just a research lab.

Kuiper was getting close to retiring and he thought maybe the place had a lot better chance of long-term survival if it had an academic department. The place has really been strengthened in the process. Now there are people with strong theoretical interests and people with strong experimental interests and the two groups are here both at the same place, and the feedback and interchange between the people who make the observations and the people who make the models and theorize about the observations is particularly good. It’s a real strength of the place.

William Hubbard

I was recruited by Gerard Kuiper. He was a very energetic person, especially given his age. He was very enthusiastic about his new department, and he took me on a tour of all of his observing sites around the area. We went up to Tumamoc Hill where he had a planetary monitoring station—the telescope is still there—and we went up to the Catalinas and looked at what’s called Catalina Station, sometimes called the Mt. Bigelow site now.

We also went up to the Mt. Lemmon summit where he had just, not long before that, taken over the old Air Force site. He had a couple of telescopes up there. He talked to me about where he thought the Laboratory was heading and what he thought my role would be in it.

The way he expressed it to me was that the Department was going to be an essential component for keeping the Laboratory in existence. At that time it was only LPL; there was no Department. He thought that in order to ensure the longevity of the whole enterprise that we needed an academic arm; we needed to have graduate students, we needed to have a teaching program.