In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously declared Americans would walk on the moon by the end of the decade. But at the time, nobody knew if it was actually possible – surprisingly little was known about the moon at the time. Scientists couldn't say for sure whether the moon's surface was solid, or just a thick layer of dust. While NASA engineers focused on building rockets, scientists scrambled to map the moon, send robotic probes to its surface, and select astronaut landing sites.
At the University of Arizona, astronomer Gerard Kuiper led a team of researchers in the effort to understand the moon. In the process, NASA funded the construction of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, now a world leader in planetary science, and began a golden age of solar system exploration. Kuiper’s team created detailed maps of the moon that were used by NASA to identify lunar landing sites.
The efforts of Kuiper and his team provided the baseline science that led to the United States winning the “Space Race” and successfully landing a man on the moon. Over the several decades since the Apollo moon missions, researchers at LPL have participated in every NASA spacecraft mission to explore our solar system. More than that, thanks to all the expertise that LPL has developed over the years, UA has the distinction of being the only university to lead two NASA missions – the Phoenix Mars mission that found water at the Martian pole, and the OSIRIS-REx mission to take a pristine sample of an asteroid and return it to Earth.