The Department of Planetary Sciences, Page 2

Michael Drake

People like Kuiper, Pat Roemer, Tom Gehrels, and Frank Low, who were the senior people at the time, realized that a new discipline was being founded. Before that, anything off the Earth had been astronomy. Yet in practice, with Apollo, you’re returning rocks, which isn’t what astronomers do, it’s what geologists do, and you’re analyzing rocks and using chemical analysis techniques to do that, and that’s chemistry. If you wanted to understand what was in the middle of Jupiter, what was it like, you certainly couldn’t send a spacecraft there, and you couldn’t look at it with a telescope, so you had to turn to physics.

It became clear that there was this new discipline, planetary science, that involved physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, atmospheric science, and other fields as well, that really were critical if we wanted to understand our immediate cosmic surroundings in the planetary system in which the Earth is embedded.

It’s to their credit, those four folks, that they had that insight. They persuaded the University, the regents and the legislature that they should found an academic department that would essentially be the teaching arm of the research Lunar and Planetary Lab. Since 1973, while they are technically different organizations, they have in fact been so intertwined with each other than they’re not physically separable.

Steve Larson

Those were electric times, I must say, to have all these new people come in who were specialists in fields outside of planetary astronomy. There were the geochemists; there were plasma physicists; there were people who were experts in the formation of the solar system. We had this colloquium series, and every week someone would give a talk, and it was just absolutely fantastic to listen and learn from people. That gained momentum, and we were having people come in from elsewhere to give classes and also seminars and whatnot, and stay here for a month or two. Every big name in the field was coming. It was just a tremendous time of growth.

For those people like myself who were here, it was a real eye-opener to a lot of things in planetary sciences that we didn’t participate much in and know a lot about, you known, like analysis of Moon rocks. I think even the people that came here also felt that way. They were being exposed to things they hadn’t known, so there was all of this synergy going on.

Harold Larson 

The original building was constructed with no classrooms. No teaching was to take place here. The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory was a pure research organization within this University. No one taught until the mid-seventies when the University wanted to make the stand-alone research organizations—Steward Observatory, the Lunar Lab, other places like that—participate more in the education program. When the new building was built, the addition, that’s where all our classrooms are.

Now NASA would look back on that and say that’s silly, because education and research are so important to couple, but back then, it was a very introverted view. NASA needed this place for research and didn’t want it encumbered with education. And the University said fine. We want the visibility, the prestige, and everything that comes with a research institution, and you don’t have to teach.

Kuiper was instrumental in defining, at least initially, what the Department of Planetary Science would be. But he died before it came to fruition. It was others that picked it up—but they picked up the pieces that he was already trying to put together.

The Department was created with the intent of just training PhDs. Looking back on it, it was still a privileged place to work in that we were somewhat immunized from students; only the best and the brightest of the grad students.

Bill Sandel

I started out as a member of a research group headed by Lyle Broadfoot at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I joined that very late in 1972. That group moved, as a group, first to the University of Southern California, although we were still housed in Tucson. That was our umbrella administrative organization. A few years later a number of us in the group moved to the Lunar and Planetary Lab.

At that time I was working on the Voyager ultraviolet spectrometer. Lyle was the Principal Investigator for that. I originally came on the project to work on the detector development. After the Voyager launched in 1977, I stayed on and became involved in the science.