Now called the "father of modern planetary astronomy," Kuiper's pursuit of moon research was at sharp odds with the astronomy community in the mid- 1950s.
"The moon had been shunned by astronomers for at least a half a century," Whitaker says. "Hard-core astronomers considered it sacrilege to squander valuable telescope time on mere Solar System objects, especially that dead lump of rock, the Moon."
But while Kuiper knew the value of the lunar surface in offering an unblemished record of events over the moon's 4.5 billion years, it would ultimately be geo-politics and not science that would push his interests to the forefront of the U.S. agenda.
The son of a tailor, Kuiper was born in the north Holland village of Tuitjenhorn in 1905. His sharp eyesight led him to astronomy and he entered Leiden University, where as fate would have it he met fellow student Bart Bok. Decades later, the pair would reconnect in Tucson, Bok as the director of the Steward Observatory and Kuiper director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
Kuiper earned his degree in 1927 and finished his doctoral thesis on binary stars in 1933. After stops at the Lick Observatory in California and Harvard College Observatory, Kuiper joined the staff of the Yerkes Observatory at the University of Chicago. Convinced the study of the moon could lead to a far better knowledge about Earth's early history, Kuiper placed lunar study and observation at the top of his priority list in the early 1950s.
Lunar studies were so far outside the mainstream of 1950s astronomy that the best available map of the moon was one hand-drawn in 1935. His mind set on recruiting others to his effort, Kuiper issued a call at the 1955 conference of the International Astronomical Union for the creation of a new photographic lunar atlas. Out of 400 astronomers at the conference, Whitaker was the only person to respond, the only one interested in the moon.
Now 92 and retired in Tucson, Whitaker in 1955 was a staff astronomer for six years at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.
"Kuiper and I must have been operating on the same wavelength because in 1952, we independently reached the same conclusions about the inadequacy of existing lunar maps," says Whitaker, who jumped at the chance to attend the astronomy conference in Dublin knowing he could meet Kuiper.
In the spring of 1957, Kuiper earned a grant from the National Science Foundation for his updated lunar atlas and wrote to ask that Whitaker join him at Yerkes. Already experienced in black-and-white photography and skilled in the darkroom, Whitaker was an ideal candidate to join Kuiper's effort, despite lacking an astronomy degree.
Using his entire annual leave, Whitaker arranged to visit Yerkes in October 1957. He left London on Oct. 5, just as the evening newspapers delivered the news, splashed in banner headlines, that Sputnik had orbited the Earth. Whitaker took a copy of the newspaper with him on the overnight flight. Kuiper, picking his new assistant up at the airport, hadn't yet heard the monumental news.