Out Of This World

An excerpt from Under Desert Skies, a new book exploring how the UA Lunar and Planetary Lab blazed trails in space exploration

The UA's Lunar and Planetary Lab has been involved in the NASA's space program for more than half a century, but sometimes it seems as if it's one of Tucson's best-kept secrets.

Journalist and former LPL staffer Melissa Sevigny has undertaken the job of telling the LPL's stories in Under Desert Skies. The book covers the lab's long history, from mapping the moon in advance of the Apollo missions all the way to the earliest days of the current OSIRIS-REx mission, which is scheduled to launch in September 2016 and bring back a sample from an asteroid in 2023.

The Weekly brings you an excerpt from the book, explaining how Sevigny came to write the book and how Gerald P. Kuiper launched the LPL back in 1960.


When I first came to work for Michael Drake, then director of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) in Tucson, he described my task in a single line: "Capture the history of LPL from the old timers while they're still alive and turn that into a transcript, if not a narrative."

The project took the better part of four years. I left LPL with more than fifty interviews recorded and transcribed, and I still felt the work was only half done. Whenever I met with scientists to document their experiences in Tucson, from its first forays into the Space Age in the 1960s to its present prominence in solar system exploration, I looked forward to asking one particular question. I asked them to tell me about the first moment they saw a new world revealed.

Some told stories about standing in the chill emptiness of a telescope dome, gazing at a distant point of light and watching something extraordinary unroll in a printout of numbers. Others described a photograph snapped by a spacecraft and transmitted to Earth at a moment when no one else stood in the command room to receive it. These "first sights" ranged from the Moon to Mars, from asteroids to the moons of asteroids, from the ultraviolet drama of photons skipping off Earth's atmosphere to the invisible bubble of the heliosphere, which marks the outermost edge of our Sun's influence.

In those stories, I knew that I had found the heart of what it meant to study planetary science: an inexhaustible sense of wonder.

My own "first sight" took place on May 26, 2008, in the engineering test bed of the Science Operations Center (today called the Michael J. Drake Building). The Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, named for the mythological bird because it rose from the ashes of a previous failed mission, had landed safely on Mars the evening before. I headed home late that night exhilarated and exhausted. I paused in the parking lot to look up in bewildered joy at the red speck resting easy in the western sky, above the sleeping contours of the Tucson Mountains. So much vast distance between the two planets, crossed, if not in an instant, then at least in the 15.3 minutes it took the Phoenix lander to transmit its touchdown signal to Earth on Landing Day.

The slapdash cubicles belonging to the education and public outreach team, where I worked for the length of ground operations, were tucked into a corner of the payload interoperability test bed, a warehouse-sized room that echoed with every step. A double of the Phoenix Lander rested on a platform nearby, surrounded by fake Martian rocks—a practice ground that engineers would rearrange into a close facsimile of the landing site.

Black paper over the windows blocked out the fierce desert sunlight to help the scientists adjust to working on "Mars time," which meant adding an additional 37 minutes to each day. They would wake and sleep with the solar-powered lander. It felt almost like going to work on Mars itself, an impression that strengthened as Phoenix relayed its daily stream of data.

The Phoenix team had embarked on this latest mission at an unprecedented time in human history. No fewer than three orbiters circled above Mars' thin pink atmosphere, and the rovers Spirit and Opportunity still explored the equator. Almost all of those missions carried instruments or drew on expertise that had originated at LPL. I had only recently embarked on Mike Drake's quest to learn and record what brought Tucson to this prominence—an odd mix of geography and personality helped by the deep clarity of the dark desert skies.

One such instrument, HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), the camera aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, had photographed Phoenix's landing site in Vastitas Borealis for the last several years, recording seasonal frost recede from the surface to reveal a puzzle-piece landscape. Just 11 hours after touchdown, the HiRISE team captured a photograph of the lander from their headquarters in another campus building. Bright blue in the color-filtered image, Phoenix bravely spread its solar panels to the cold. From the vertical distance of roughly two hundred miles, the lander looked like a molecule of the water we hoped to find, three linked circles in a sea of red.

Many images would arrive from Phoenix over the next five months, some black-and-white and grainy, others compiled into magnificent panoramas. But that speck of blue stuck in my mind. To me, it meant the fulfillment of my childhood dream to travel to another planet—if not with my own two feet, then at least through the firmly planted tripod of a spacecraft.

For LPL, the portrait of the Phoenix lander symbolized three triumphs. First, its artistry was a tribute to the scientists on the HiRISE team, who had also captured with incredible precision a picture of Phoenix plummeting to the ground, parachute streaming—the first image ever taken of a spacecraft's descent to another planet.

Second, the flat red terrain pictured beneath the winged circle of the lander belonged to the success of yet another LPL instrument, the gamma ray spectrometer on the Mars Odyssey orbiter. Six years earlier the spectrometer had detected vast quantities of hydrogen lying beneath the snakeskin surface of the poles, the H in H2O. The discovery was compelling evidence that water still existed on Mars, locked away in ice.

And then Phoenix itself. Designed to dig into the Martian surface with a robotic arm in search of water and organic molecules, Phoenix represented the first time a public university controlled ground operations of a NASA mission. When the spacecraft confirmed the presence of frozen water a scant two inches beneath the dust, one LPL scientist would say with a hint of exasperated humor, "We discovered water on Mars—again." In a single snapshot, three remarkable successes conspired to meet at 68 degrees north and 234 degrees east, on a world that couldn't be more different from Tucson's blazing heat.

Many stories can be told about LPL's journey from a small research lab to a leader in planetary science, and how this corner of Arizona became Earth's ambassador to the solar system. This book does not capture them all. But in a small way it fulfills another dream—Mike Drake's hope of crafting a narrative that would preserve the triumphs, challenges, and extraordinary journeys of those who soon would be gone. In the midst of recording the memories of LPL scientists, I felt fortunate to have my own story of a "first sight" to tell. Nearly five decades after its founding, LPL's legacy alighted on the northern plains of Mars. The Phoenix lander blinked its message to Earth: at last, we have arrived.

Gerard Peter Kuiper

"The Lunar Lab is not what it was then," Binder said. "Then it was Kuiper. That was it. When one says to me, 'Lunar Lab,' my mind just goes back to old Gerard."

Colleagues remember Gerard Peter Kuiper—or "GPK" as they called him, though to students he was always "Dr. Kuiper"—as quaint, old-fashioned, and sharp-minded. A forceful and penetrating personality, he wore a jacket and tie to work every day, insisting on a formality and decorum that had faded away from other scientific institutions. His front pocket always contained a short stub of pencil with which to illustrate his ideas on whatever scrap paper he could find.

Born in the Netherlands as Gerrit Pieter Kuiper, he carried with him the authoritative style of European universities. He was undisputedly the head of the Lunar Lab, its benevolent dictator, the calm center of all its activities. As a driven and self-possessed student at Leiden University, Kuiper had already chosen the solar system as the focus of his research. His incoming class in 1924 consisted of only one other student, Bart J. Bok, who was destined to become Kuiper's friend and rival in Tucson, situated just across the street at Steward Observatory.

When the two met beside the astronomy shelves in the library, Bok announced his intention to focus his research on the Milky Way. As Bok recalled, Kuiper immediately replied, "That is not an uninteresting field. But I expect to study a more fundamental area, the problem of three bodies and related questions about the nature and origin of the solar system."

Despite his early intentions, Kuiper found it nearly impossible to start his career by studying the disregarded solar system. Instead he turned to binary stars, hoping to find an analog for planetary formation. At the University of California's Lick Observatory, Harvard, and finally Yerkes, Kuiper delved into star clusters, white dwarfs, and the luminosity of stars. World War II interrupted his research, and he developed radar countermeasures in wartime service. He obtained leave to visit McDonald Observatory during this time, where he took his first steps into planetary astronomy, detecting methane on Titan and proving that a satellite could have an atmosphere. He discovered Uranus' moon Miranda in 1948 and Neptune's moon Nereid the following year.

In the late '40s, Kuiper made the shocking prediction that the universe contained many suns, each with a family of circling planets spun out of swirling clouds of primordial gas. At the time, astronomers favored the theory that the solar system had formed from rare cosmic collisions, making the Earth exceptional, not commonplace. Kuiper, on the other hand, thought one out every hundred stars might harbor a planet, a calculation that withstood the test of time.

Kuiper's desire to study the origin of the solar system led him to search for clues in the nearby Moon. At the Lunar Lab, he could pursue his first interest with a characteristic single-mindedness. He relocated to Tucson with his wife, an American named Sarah Parker Fuller, and two children, Paul Hayes and Sylvia Lucy Ann. Colleagues remembered Kuiper as a devoted family man. He delighted in tending the jungle-like garden at their house on Sawtelle Avenue.

Kuiper approached science with an artist's eye. He was not blind to the importance of his work. The eastern side door of the Space Sciences Building remains locked to this day, an unremembered tribute to Kuiper's command to keep the public from trafficking through his halls. "He was a very, very demanding individual," Dale Cruikshank said. "He worked extremely hard himself, and he demanded the same dedication, devotion, seriousness from everybody around him."

Research assistants, struggling to keep up with the indomitable astronomer, spent long nights in the telescope dome. Catnapping on the cold floor of the observatory, Kuiper could wake twenty minutes later, refreshed and ready to go back to work. A versatile innovator, he printed his own photographs in the darkroom and once used a bicycle chain to construct a scientific apparatus to study Pluto.

To students, he seemed imposing in person, intensely devoted to his work—and to his beloved telescopes—almost to obsession. A research assistant, Lyn Doose, remembered the longest conversation he and Kuiper exchanged: "I was observing up at the 61-inch, and he was very worried that I was going to back my car up over his flowers that he planted up there."

Kuiper circulated formally composed memos complaining of any irregularity that threatened the 61-inch, from unlocked storage sheds to tourists siphoning gas from the company vehicle. George Rieke remembered one such reprimand: "I once left the lights on in the tunnel going down to the dormitory at the 61-inch and I got written up in a memo that got distributed to the whole lab." Kuiper eventually installed a lock that only a privileged few could open.

Isolated in his position as the autocratic head of LPL, Kuiper often craved an audience for his thoughts. With old-fashioned courtliness, he dictated out loud to his longtime secretary Ida Edwards or called on passing students to provide a respectful ear. Chuck Wood recalled waking early on Saturday mornings to a summons from Kuiper's assistant.

"I'd go over there and [Kuiper] would ask me a few questions about something, and then he'd start storytelling," Wood said. "He told me about after World War II when he was trying to find von Braun, the German rocket designer. He had part of a German rocket motor that von Braun had built in his office, which he showed me. It was really amazing to have him need an audience, and I was the audience."

Kuiper had immense faith in the U.S. space program, expressing in a letter to University President Harvill his admiration for its "spirit of discovery" and "complete openness of communication."

To balance that, he felt deep concern over the social and political unrest that marked the '60s, to the extent of calling Wood, whom he considered LPL's resident hippie, into his office one day to ask if students might attack the government-funded Space Sciences Building.

Kuiper had little patience with naysayers of space exploration. He complained to Harvill that they blithely took advantage of technological comforts without any appreciation for the rigorous intellectual disciplines that made such technology possible. "I see no alternative but to teach more science, philosophy, and particularly the scientific methods of problem-solving to our students in law, government, and humanities," he wrote in 1972, anticipating a crisis in science education that continues to spark similar pleas today.

His concern for the state of education did not make him a personable teacher, however. He had a talent for inspiring the public, but students who searched him out found him a difficult boss. Dignified, polished, and arrogant, Kuiper was prone to sparking ruptures between his colleagues. As a measure of his personality, he sometimes wrote letters to prominent authors to express admiration of their work, in which he couldn't resist pointing out errors in mathematics or spelling. Cruikshank recalled that Kuiper could be abrupt and dismissive at times, but also said that he learned a sense of "elegance and beauty" from Kuiper as they watched the spectra of stars emerge, line by line, from an instrument strapped to the telescope.

Many who knew him recalled a warm and generous person beneath the redoubtable scientist. He hosted going-away parties for students at his home and made allowances for slacking at their work if they'd newly fallen in love—though missed classes and sleepless nights were often required to keep up with the demanding assistantships. "Even though he was intimidating to us," Hartmann said, "he had this very gracious side."

Despite Kuiper's lack of interest in teaching, the students who studied under him thrived in the new field of planetary science. Toby Owen, whose distinguished career launched from his original work in spectroscopy in Tucson, said that "in all this time I never forgot Kuiper and LPL. Besides being a great scientist, Kuiper was an exceptionally kind person. I have had a career filled with marvels, and I owe that career to him."

In a time when few scientists turned their eyes toward the Moon, Kuiper's vision and genius helped forge a new field. "He had to be very strong," George Coyne said. "He was starting a major effort here at the University of Arizona, so he had to dominate the scene." Through his own formidable reputation, Kuiper returned the study of the solar system to the realm of respectable science. He brought Arizona to the forefront of planetary research, and he had impeccable timing. LPL's stature—and with it, the field of planetary science—grew with each year that brought America closer to its goal of reaching the Moon.

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