Under Desert Skies

Under Desert Skies: How Tucson Mapped the Way to the Moon and Planets

Copyright Date: 2016
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    Under Desert Skies
    Book Description:

    President Kennedy's announcement that an American would walk on the Moon before the end of the 1960s took the scientific world by surprise. The study of the Moon and planets had long fallen out of favor with astronomers: they were the stuff of science fiction, not science.An upstart planetary laboratory in Tucson would play a vital role in the nation's grand new venture, and in doing so, it would help create the field of planetary science. Founded by Gerard P. Kuiper in 1960, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) at the University of Arizona broke free from traditional astronomical techniques to embrace a wide range of disciplines necessary to the study of planets, including geology, atmospheric sciences, and the elegant emerging technology of spacecraft. Brash, optimistic young students crafted a unique sense of camaraderie in the fledgling institution. Driven by curiosity and imagination, LPL scientists lived through-and, indeed, made happen-the shattering transition in which Earth's nearest neighbors became more than simple points of light in the sky.Under Desert Skiestells the story of how a small corner of Arizona became Earth's ambassador to space. From early efforts to reach the Moon to the first glimpses of Mars's bleak horizons and Titan's swirling atmosphere to the latest ambitious plans to touch an asteroid, LPL's history encompasses humanity's unfolding knowledge about our place in the universe.

    eISBN: 978-0-8165-3381-7
    Subjects: General Science, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-6)

    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...

    (pp. 7-27)

    In late august 1955, at the Ninth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Dublin, Ireland, the Dutch-born astronomer Gerard P. Kuiper circulated an unusual memo: would anyone help him create an atlas of the Moon?

    Out of some five hundred astronomers present, only Ewen Whitaker replied. Few scientists in those days studied the Moon. Telescopes had long ago revealed its barrenness, and most astronomers dismissed the Earth’s nearest neighbor in favor of dim galaxies and distant star clusters. When Whitaker joined the Lunar Section of the British Astronomical Association, a society for amateurs, he was dismayed to...

    (pp. 28-54)

    Fading photographs papered Ewen Whitaker’s home office, alongside annotated Moon maps and a framed letter from President Nixon congratulating him on locating the landing site of the lunar spacecraft Surveyor 3. A lifetime of collecting and repairing old clocks had amassed into an impressive display of polished wood and delicate dials on the wall of his living room. They took a minute or two to go through their cacophony of bells and chimes.

    Now in his eighties, Whitaker radiated energy and irrepressible good humor. Rumor had it he could detect ultraviolet wavelengths with one eye, allowing him to discern structures...

    (pp. 55-77)

    Despite the excitement of the era, planetary science had not quite earned its place among respectable institutions of astronomy. When an expert on planetary atmospheres named William Hubbard took a faculty position at LPL in 1972, his colleagues looked at him askance. “In those days it was dismissed by many astronomers as the Loony Lab,” Hubbard said, “a place where you had rather eccentric people who were under the sway of a dictator, namely Gerard Kuiper, who was not particularly enlightened in his approach to things.”

    LPL expanded rapidly in the fervor of the Space Race, but money from NASA,...

    (pp. 78-104)

    As a child, Laurel Wilkening had been dazzled by the dark skies awash with stars above her father’s mountain cabin in New Mexico. She studied chemistry in college, examined lunar samples for her graduate dissertation at UC San Diego, and obtained a postdoc position at the University of Chicago, inspired by the few female professors who managed to obtain teaching positions in science departments. Strong-willed and soft-spoken, she continued to champion for women’s rights throughout her professional career, demanding equal pay for equal experience.

    Wilkening’s good-natured personality charmed Godfrey Sill during their journey over the mountains of Mexico searching for...

    (pp. 105-145)

    Pluto’s reclassification as a dwarf planet in 2006 retroactively awarded Voyager 2 the honor of completing the first assessment of every planet in the solar system. Streams of data, wondrous in their own right, replaced fantasy. It was clear that Earth alone in the solar system supported the intelligent life that Percival Lowell once imagined on Mars. Voyager 2’s encounter with Uranus in 1989 marked the end of a golden era. NASA had plans underway for new missions—Galileo to Jupiter, Magellan to Venus, and the ambitious Cassini-Huygens to Titan—but launch windows slipped by unused as funding snarls diminished...

  10. EPILOGUE: Worlds Beyond
    (pp. 146-150)

    I finished compiling interviews and writing most of this history in 2010, LPL’s fiftieth anniversary year. The project gave me a fascinating glimpse into a half-century of planetary exploration and insight into how the preferences, personalities, and chance encounters of ordinary people shape what humans know about our place in the grandness of space and time.

    I usually started my interviews with the question, “How did you become interested in planetary science?” Almost invariably they began, “It started when I was a kid.” The same stories appeared again and again: a glimpse of Sputnik blinking in the night sky; watching...

    (pp. 151-154)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 155-158)
    (pp. 159-166)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 167-172)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 173-173)