Closeup portrait of Kuiper at the LPL.

Kuiper visits…Kuiper?

Kuiper sits in front of the Kuiper Space Sciences building.

Kuiper visits his very own science building!!

We can’t talk about the history of the moon landing without discussing Dr. Gerard Kuiper’s critical role in it! Many thanks to the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory for allowing us to visit the Kuiper Space Sciences building on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. The lab was founded in 1960 by our Kuiper’s namesake.

Though we had increasingly good telescopes in the first half of the 20th century, most astronomers were pointing them outwards towards the stars rather than studying our own solar system. Planetary science wasn’t really a thing.

In fact, according to LPL scientist Robert Strom, at the time of Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech in 1961: “We knew very little about the Moon. We did not know what the composition of the Moon was. We did not know the physical state of the surface, whether you would sink into dust or whether it was rock.”

Dr. Kuiper had been interested in both astronomy and making maps since he was a kid, and realized in the mid 1950s that no one had a good map of the Moon. He proposed creating a lunar atlas out of telescope photographs of the Moon’s surface. With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the US Air Force decided to fund his project. Much of the initial work was done at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin (which sadly closed last year. ?)

In 1960, Dr. Kuiper relocated his project and staff to Tucson, Arizona, where there were both clearer skies ? and a brand new national observatory (Kitt Peak.) ? The same year, his team published the first edition of the Photographic Lunar Atlas (sold for the modern equiv of about $250.) NASA proceeded to ask the Air Force for another version, one with a coordinate grid that could be used to help select moon landing sites.

This is harder than it sounds. It’s not easy to accurately turn a round object into a “flat” map, let alone when we’re only working with half of it. Learn how we did it in the next post… (and/or check out the awesome, free 30-minute documentary on!)

Phew! 1960 means we’re nearly to Project Mercury! Have you ever viewed the moon or other planets through a telescope?

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