The History of LPI

During the mid-1960s, as NASA was aggressively working toward President John F. Kennedy’s desire to land a man on the Moon, NASA administrator James Webb asked that a committee be established, to be led by Dr. Frederick Seitz, President of the National Academy of Sciences, to engage the academic community in NASA’s efforts. In July 1967, the concept of a Lunar Science Institute (LSI) was born out of those discussions.

On March 1, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson visited NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center, or JSC) in Houston, Texas, and made the following pronouncement:

Listen to an excerpt from President Johnson’s speech

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On October 1, 1968, the Lunar Science Institute (LSI) was formally established by NASA contract with the National Academy of Sciences to operate the new entity in cooperation with Rice University. Needing an entity to manage the LSI that would be more widely representative of the university community, in March 1969, the National Academy of Sciences, at the request of NASA, chartered the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), a nonprofit association of universities. USRA’s purpose was to foster cooperation among universities, other research organizations, and the U.S. government for the advancement of space research, and in December 1969 USRA assumed management of the LSI under contract to NASA.

Since the founding of USRA, distinguished members of the international university community have been deeply involved in USRA’s activities.

USRA has continued to operate with a guiding philosophy that it inherited from James E. Webb, the second NASA administrator who was consistent in expressing the importance of strengthening Universities. He wanted substantial participation of university researchers in NASA’s explorations because he knew that NASA would need to draw on university expertise as the agency encountered a wide variety of scientific and technical challenges.

USRA was born from the NASA administrator’s vision, and it has supported the needs of NASA and other federal agencies as well as making it easier for university space researchers to participate in the nation’s space program. USRA has served researchers from around the world and has assisted NASA, and continues to assist university researchers as the discipline of space research and technology grows.

Additional Information

Book cover for History of the Formation of USRA

Cummings W. D. (2009) A Documentary History of the Formation of USRA. Universities Space Research Association, Columbia, Maryland. 251 pp.


Dr. William W. Rubey

Dr. William W. Rubey

Dr. William W. Rubey, professor of geology and geophysics at the University of California, Los Angeles, was appointed as the first Director of the LSI on October 31, 1968. At that time, LSI held temporary offices at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) and five months later moved into leased office space within close proximity to MSC. In October 1969, LSI moved into the newly renovated West Mansion, adjacent to the MSC, which had been deeded to Rice University with the stipulation that the property be used for research purposes. The dedication ceremony took place on January 4, 1970, and included remarks from NASA Administrator Thomas Paine, who concluded his speech with reading the words cast on a commemorative plaque, which still hangs outside the doors of the current building: “Dedicated to the scientists of the Earth who seek to understand the nature, origin and history of our solar system.”

West Mansion

West Mansion

Aerial view of the Lunar and Planetary Institute

Aerial view of the Lunar and Planetary Institute

LSI’s research broadened to include the terrestrial planets, their satellites, the asteroids and meteorites, and the jovian and saturnian planetary systems, which prompted LSI’s name change in 1978 to the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI). In January 1992, LPI bid farewell to the West Mansion and moved to a nearby office building constructed by USRA, in close proximity to NASA Johnson Space Center, which the Institute still occupies today.

Throughout its history, the LPI has made significant contributions to the understanding of lunar and planetary science. LPI staff scientists, postdoctoral fellows, and visiting scientists, whose fields of research represent much of the breadth of the planetary science community, pursue innovative research, support NASA programs, provide a connection to the university scientific community, and contribute vital science focus to all LPI activities.

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