Work on the lunar atlas began slowly, first by compiling the best existing telescopic images of the moon from five observatories: Mount Wilson (California), Yerkes (Wisconsin), Lick (California), McDonald (Texas) and Pic du Midi (France). But the effort gained momentum starting in 1959, with the Soviet Luna program surpassing the newly formed NASA's achievements.
In 1959, interest in Kuiper's lunar map came more from the Air Force than the NSF and the chief of the Air Force Chart and Information Center's mapping group visited Kuiper and his team at Yerkes. Kuiper's Photographic Lunar Atlas was at long last published by the University of Chicago Press in 1960 (with Whitaker among four other co-authors), even as the relationship between university administrators and the headstrong astronomer began souring.
"Kuiper was getting the push more or less from Yerkes because he was concentrating on the moon and taking up room in the observatory," Whitaker says.
The discontent flowed from the non-lunar astronomers at Yerkes over Kuiper's strong-arm tactics in pushing his favored research over the more traditional fields of stellar, galactic and extra-galactic astronomy. Furthermore, Whitaker and two other Brits were afforded VIP status from Kuiper, even above the tenured astronomers. And Kuiper himself, who had at that point developed a strong worldwide reputation, grew increasingly dissatisfied with the conditions at Yerkes. Though known as "the birthplace of modern astrophysics," Yerkes' southern Wisconsin location was cloudy, cold and wet.
"The condition for sharp photos of the moon wasn't good," says Whitaker. And since Kuiper's and his research associates were using other, better telescopes whenever possible, they didn't need to remain at Yerkes.
As Kuiper, Whitaker and others were working on their lunar atlas, astronomer Aden B. Meinel was conducting surveys of the Southwest, searching for the prime spot to launch the first U.S. National Observatory. Like others before him, Meinel became entranced by the clear, dry air and the steep mountain ranges around Arizona and California. Meinel settled on the 6,880-foot Kitt Peak, 88 miles southwest of Tucson.
"When Meinel was doing surveys of places in Arizona and California for a national telescope, of course he and Kuiper were good friends. I'm sure Meinel said to Kuiper 'There's a good place I found in Southern Arizona,'" Whitaker says.
The University of Arizona at the cusp of the 1960s was undergoing unprecedented growth. Led by President Richard Harvill, the university had built 19 new buildings from 1951 to 1961 and was in the middle of nearly quintupling enrollment over the course of Harvill's 20-year presidency.
Meinel received a fateful call from Kuiper in 1959. Kuiper envisioned a planetary institute at the UA, with freedom he didn't have at Yerkes and the potential for major government funding as Washington raced Moscow to the skies. Meinel arranged for the UA to invite Kuiper for a campus visit.
Harvill saw a world-class scientist who could raise the university's research profile and after a rapid courtship, the 54-year-old Kuiper brought his research group to the UA, the lunar insurgents affiliated not with the Steward Observatory or the astronomy department, but instead with the Institute of Atmospheric Physics. "UA Hires Famous Astronomer" read the Tucson Daily Citizen front-page headline on Feb. 13, 1960.
Whitaker recalls strapping overstuffed suitcases to the roof rack of his Rambler station wagon and arriving with his family in Tucson on Aug. 20 that year, only to find a dirty, uncooled house. They slept the first night in the car. The rest of Kuiper's team trickled in throughout August and September and by October, the 14,000 pounds of books, papers and lab equipment arrived. The Lunar Project was officially now headquartered in Tucson.