Personal Recollections of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

Note from the editors: This year marks the 50th anniversary of what is now known as the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Originally titled the Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference, the meeting has since evolved to encompass the entire solar system from Mercury to Ultima Thule. In this article, the author — one of only five scientists who have attended the conference every year since its inception — shares his personal memories, recollections, and behind-the-scenes stories of the history and evolution of what is arguably the premiere planetary science conference in the world. Enjoy! — Paul Schenk and Renée Dotson

The first Lunar Science Conference in January 1970 was actually called the Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference, at which more than 140 Principal Investigators (PIs) were asked to present the first results about the returned lunar samples in the Albert Thomas Convention and Exhibit Center in downtown Houston. Two of my thesis advisors (first J. Hoover Mackin and later Bill Muehlberger) at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) were members of the Apollo Science Team. Even though Muehlberger would be the geology co-PI for the Apollo 16 and 17 missions, he couldn’t get me into the first meeting since tickets were restricted to PIs and invited guests, not graduate students. But I was able to slip in through a “back door”; the mother of a friend at UT Austin (geology student Ruth Fruland) happened to work in the Public Affairs Office at the Manned Space Flight Center (now the Johnson Space Center) and gave me the equivalent of a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket so I could attend the very first Lunar Science Conference. The conference also included a banquet at the Grand Ballroom of the historic Rice Hotel in downtown Houston. (Interestingly, in 1962 NASA’s Astronaut Group 2 held its first meeting inside that same hotel to plan the next decade of space travel. Among that group was Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Pete Conrad.)

Items from the Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference

Swag from the Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference. There was no official abstract volume handed out at the meeting, but PIs were encouraged to bring copies of one- or two-page abstracts to the meeting. Those were later collected and bound together with a cover. Credit: NASA.

I roomed with Muehlberger in downtown Houston (Mackin tragically passed away just one year before the landing). Filled with anticipation, I walked to the convention center from the hotel under one of those crisp January days with a deep blue sky. I had my camera with me, but thought it would be “unprofessional” if I took a bunch of photos, especially since I wasn’t sure if I should be there anyway and wanted to maintain a low profile. Besides, I had loaded the camera with color film with a sensitivity that required time exposures in the meeting room. So, I took one photograph of the convention center from the outside and another of the registration desk inside. That was all.

The first Apollo results were presented in a single large room. All the big names were there. Some I had met at a Gordon Research Conference in 1968 or at Apollo team meetings (Don Gault, Mike Duke, Gene Shoemaker, Bill Quaide, Jim Head, and John Wood, to name just a few). But with my camera, I must have looked like a cub reporter. The first meeting naturally focused on sample analysis, but broad themes were already emerging, including Wood’s lunar magma ocean model based on small light-colored particles (anorthosites) discovered in the lunar regolith at the Apollo 11 site. There were no formal abstracts at the first conference, but I picked up one- or two-page summaries that some speakers had left at the registration desk. Actually, NASA had issued a moratorium against publishing anything before the conference, in part because the journal Science would come out with the first results that same week.

The second conference in 1971 was again held downtown in January at the same venue. The moratorium against distributing results was lifted, and the first Lunar Science Conference abstract volume contained 241 contributions, a jump of 25% from the first year. Abstracts then ranged from a single long sentence to several pages (but without a table of contents or index), and revised abstracts were compiled with a pale yellow cover. This year also introduced the first Proceedings of the Lunar Science Conference, edited by the staff of the Lunar Science Institute later that year and published by MIT Press. In addition, 1971 was the year that Soviet scientists were invited to present their results from the Luna 16 automated sample return mission. I recall being really impressed by the tall, buffed Soviet “scientists” who accompanied A. P. Vinogradov in the meeting, not realizing that they must have been bodyguards (or perhaps KGB?).

Third Lunar Science Conference in 1972

The conference was moved to the Manned Space Center in 1972. Credit: NASA.

In 1972, the third Lunar Science Conference moved to the NASA Manned Science Center (MSC) in Clear Lake with sessions in Buildings  1, 17, and 30, and would remain at MSC for the next 30 years. [Note that the Space Center’s name wouldn’t be changed to NASA Johnson Science Center (JSC) until the following year.] The number of submissions had increased to 300 and remained relatively level for the next 5 years. The abstracts had generally expanded to two to three pages and were bound into two separate volumes with yellow covers (hence the references to the conference abstract volumes as the “Yellow Perils”). The fourth Lunar Science Conference in 1973 was again held in Clear Lake, with a “smoker” held in the Holiday Inn Ballroom up the street on NASA Road 1. [Editor’s note:  For you young whippersnappers, that’s what cocktail hours were called back in the days when almost everyone smoked.]

The next year, the conference moved to the auditorium in Building 2 (later relabeled Building 1) and Rooms 104 and 206 of the Gilruth Center, which was actually a gym complex at the edge of the NASA JSC campus. In the first few years at the Gilruth Center, one of the gyms remained open during the conference, and you could actually hear basketballs bouncing during the science talks upstairs. The wooded setting of the Gilruth Center lent itself to casual discussions on picnic benches outside. Eventually, the Gilruth Center was essentially closed to athletic activities during the week of the conference, and all sessions were held there in two large halls (converted gyms) on the ground floor and three small rooms above (eventually four).

By then, the “smoker” had moved to the Nassau Bay Hotel (fondly called the “Nausea” Bay by some), which played an important role for many during the Apollo years. This is where Walter Cronkite gave his on-the-scene black-and-white television reports about the Apollo landings from the top floor, overlooking NASA JSC across the street. One of the most famous (or infamous) social scenes was the “Boom-Boom Room” in the back. This is the place where the Apollo astronauts (and lunar scientists!) let off steam during and after the Apollo missions. Some rooms in the hotel were carpeted from floor to ceiling and even had a glass-enclosed sitting pool. Such great history.

Lunar Science Conference 1977

A conference attendee chats with Pamela (Jones) Solomon at the registration desk in 1977. Credit: NASA/Lunar and Planetary Institute.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Lunar Science Conference was not the only “planetary” themed conference. In 1968, my primary thesis advisor (Harlan J. Smith) hosted the first meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society (DPS) in Austin. I volunteered to be one of the slide-projector operators. However, the DPS meeting focused on planetary atmospheres, dynamics, solar system evolution, and spectrophotometry. I recall one talk that speculated about the surface of Mars. Although Mariner 4 images had captured a few images in 1965, they revealed only craters. One of the attendees (who shall remain nameless) stood up and proclaimed that this was not the conference at which to be talking about surfaces of planets. As a geologist, I thought this was a crushing comment! Conversely, there would be very few planetary astronomy talks at the early Lunar Science Conference, except those about multispectral imaging or photometry of the Moon. Even after the successful planetary missions (Mariner 6, 7, 9, and 10), the first six Lunar Science Conferences included few abstracts about planetary surfaces beyond the Moon, except a half dozen (each year) that placed the Moon in a broader context, such as lunar formation and solar system evolution.

This school of thought reflected three very distinct disciplines (and funding sources) of an emerging new research area:  lunar geology, planetary astronomy, and planetary geology. Apollo funding covered the study of lunar geology, while traditional funding for planetary astronomy had a long history (e.g., atmospheres, dynamics, interiors). Funding for planetary geology, however, rode on the coattails of the manned mission program to the Moon, enabling the much cheaper Mariner missions (4, 6,7, 9, 10). Even the Viking mission, which replaced a much more ambitious Voyager mission, was approved by Congress in 1968 at the peak of Apollo funding. Where were the conferences related to planetary surfaces beyond the Moon?

Tom McGetchin is interviewed by the press during the 1977 Lunar Science Conference

Tom McGetchin, conference co-chair (and Lunar Science Institute Director), is interviewed by the press during the 1977 conference. Credit: NASA/Lunar and Planetary Institute.

In 1969, one of my other advisors in geology (geochemist F. Earl Ingerson, known as “Dr. I” by his students) asked if I wanted to look at recently released images from Mariner 6 and 7 to Mars. At that time, NASA Headquarters was soliciting broader participation in planetary geology through small grants. Of course, I said yes. The astronomer Gerard de Vaucouleurs (of UT Austin’s astronomy department) had written books about Mars in the 1940s and published detailed observations. NASA funded him to compile the best photometric map of Mars based on the telescopic observations and photographs. I was asked to help but wanted to see actual features. Even the highest telescopic resolution revealed only irregular smudges and Mariner 4 did little to change this perception, other than to reveal a few craters on the surface, similar to the Moon. The first published reports about Mariner 6 and 7 seemed to support this conclusion, but others interpreted linear features as fault or joint systems. Using cross-correlations among images, I found these “faults” to be artifacts, coherent noise introduced during processing. Left over, however, were sinuous lines that I interpreted as narrow river-like valleys, broken-up terrains, and even portions of Valles Marineris (before seeing any Mariner 9 images). Dr. I asked if I would give a talk about my results at a PI meeting in Flagstaff, Arizona (my first professional talk). This 1969 meeting was the precursor to the Planetary Geology Principal Investigator’s (PGPI) conferences, which paralleled the Lunar Science Conference.

From the very beginning, then, I had my foot in all three “tribes” and enjoyed the very different perspectives and approaches, all the while observing science politics (and trying to stay out of them). This personal diversion is key for understanding and appreciating the later evolution of the Lunar Science Conference in the 1970s.

LPSC chili cook-off judges

Mike Duke, John Dietrich, Bill Quaide, and Doug Blanchard bravely volunteer as chili cook-off judges during the 1991 conference. Meeting organizer Pamela (Jones) Solomon is shown in the background on the right. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute.

Apollo 17 would become the last human landing on the Moon at the end of 1972. Two upcoming landings were canceled; NASA’s budget was cut; and some funds were redirected toward international cooperative programs, such as SkyLab (and later the Shuttle Program). It became apparent that new samples would not be coming back from the Moon, and there was a major shift in research emphasis that would transform future Lunar Science Conferences. Moreover, the Apollo program had ended in 1975, and some thought that lunar science should end as well. NASA Centers were told to identify their own role and mission (and avoid overlap). For example, the Planetary Geology Branch at NASA Ames was dissolved, and the Astrogeology Division at the U.S. Geological Survey redirected all its efforts to the upcoming Viking mission. I just happened to be on a train ride from San Jose to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA HQ asked me to select images for a planned Mercury Atlas) and was surprised to find acquaintances from Astrogeology at Menlo Park going to Flagstaff. They knew that this was more than a train ride:  It represented the end of a 20-year journey of studying the Moon. In Flagstaff, they would be told to drop lunar research. I joined them for drinks in the upstairs glass-domed club on a gloomy ride before getting off the train in Pasadena.

NASA’s funding shift resulted in a new emphasis on meteorites and terrestrial analog studies . . . along with new strategies to return samples from Mars. The outlook for a career in lunar science from 1973 through 1977, however, seemed grim. Yet the number of abstracts for the seventh and eighth Lunar Science Conferences (1976 and 1977) increased, along with just a few more dealing with objects other than the Moon. Lunar science was still holding on.

LPSC abstract volumes

By the early 1990s, the three-volume LPSC abstract volumes, aka the “yellow perils,” had grown so large that the LPI staff started putting them in boxes so attendees would be able to carry them. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute.

I moved from NASA Ames Research Center (as an NRC Post-Doc) to the Lunar Science Institute (now the Lunar and Planetary Institute) in Houston in 1976 (and ironically stayed in the Nassau Bay Hotel while waiting for our moving truck). That year, Robert (“Bob”) Pepin, then the Lunar Science Institute Director, initiated the Basaltic Volcanism Study Project (BVSP), which gathered a broad group of scientists to compare the nature, composition, and timing of volcanism on Earth, the Moon, Mercury, and Mars. This required a close look at lunar samples in a much broader planetary context. The next Lunar Science Institute Director (Tom McGetchin) in 1977 breathed life into the BVSP that stimulated new research at subsequent conferences.

In 1978, McGetchin formally changed the name of the Lunar Science Institute to the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), and changed the name of the conference to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC). In addition, opportunities for post-Apollo research expanded through the Lunar Data Analysis and Synthesis Program (championed by Bill Quaide at NASA HQ), which was the first data analysis program at NASA and generated new funds for basic research starting in 1976. This new program contributed to a 26% jump in abstract submissions in 1978 (the ninth LPSC) from the previous year. While DPS and the PGPI meetings continued, LPSC was now the place to present the latest results and hypotheses about the compositions of the planets and the contrasting processes shaping their surfaces. Abstract submissions would remain between 445 and 490 for the next eight years.

For me, LPSC was about more than just giving and attending science presentations. My wife and I would regularly entertain as many as 15–20 visitors at our house for hors d’oeuvres. During one meeting, I arrived home a bit early to find my wife on top of the counter, scraping off food from the ceiling, while our guests arrived just a few minutes behind me. She had left a wooden spoon in the mixer that ballistically launched her cheese dip. There was a change in domestic procedures after that (including instructions to call ahead).

LPSC chili cook-off and barbecue dinner at the Pasadena Fairgrounds

Conference attendees were given a “Taste of Texas” at the chili cook-off and barbecue dinner at the Pasadena Fairgrounds in 1993. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute.

The era of Willy Nelson and Mickey Gilley led to the famous (infamous?) LPSC Chili Cook-Off in 1981, first held on the LPI grounds and later at the Landolt Pavilion in a nearby park across from Clear Lake. There were some classic chili recipes, which I will just say were rather “interesting”:  venison, frog legs, rattlesnake, eggs, and other unmentionable ingredients. The cook-offs encouraged great exchanges (i.e., trash talk) and swag (T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, etc.). This transitioned into casual dining (from Mexican food to barbecue) and free beer at the Pasadena Fairgrounds for a number of years. I liked to sit down at a random bench and make new acquaintances or meet up with colleagues dating back to some of the very first conferences. But free beer at a site far from the hotels raised liability issues, something we never used to think about.

These early science conferences included many strong personalities, which resulted in some intense “discussions.” For example, some argued that all the flows inside large lunar craters were simply debris flows, not impact melt. Other debates continued to focus on the origin of the highland plains on Mercury, citing lessons about the highland plains from the Apollo 16 mission. I recall chairing one session where two individuals argued about crater statistics (no names, but you can guess). The speaker had finished, but a person in the audience immediately rose to make a comment. As the speaker responded, the commenter answered back a bit more aggressively. The speaker then started moving off the podium while the audience member approached. I felt like a referee for the World Wrestling Association . . . although they both took their seats when the bell rang for the fourth time, my judo training almost came in handy.

LPSC 25th anniversary

At a special celebration in 1994, Bob Clayton, Gene Shoemaker, and George Wetherill cut the LPSC 25th anniversary cake, with conference co-chairs David Black and Doug Blanchard looking on. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute.

There were only a handful of planetary missions during the 1980s, not counting every planet encountered by Voyager, which flew by Neptune in 1989, and the flotilla of non-U.S. missions to Comet Halley. The Challenger disaster in 1986 delayed several planned missions and put fiscal pressures on other programs. Nevertheless, LPSC remained a vibrant meeting because of new discoveries, including the global iridium layer at the K/T (K/Pg) boundary and the recognition of meteorites from Mars. As a result, I recall being in one of the Mars sessions in one of the small rooms in the Gilruth Center where only 20 people attended. In other years, only 15 people attended a session about the Moon. By 1981 (the twelfth LPSC), all oral sessions were held in the Gilruth Center.

After moving to Brown University in 1984, I no longer had the luxury of simply slipping my abstract under the door of the Publications Department on the day of the abstract deadline. Now, abstract-deadline day became an annual stressor. I would have to send any abstracts to Houston the day before. My students will confirm that we literally jogged down the hill to the downtown FedEx Office, sometimes with only minutes to spare. A couple of times, there was a car waiting outside to drive to the FedEx Center (near the airport), which stayed open later. One year, I actually flew down and delivered my abstracts in person. (While this sounds like a great story, the trip actually coincided with the dedication of the new USRA/LPI building in 1992.)

In the 1980s, hotels in the vicinity of NASA JSC began to decline. But I thought it was important to give my students a sense of history by continuing to stay in the “Nausea” Bay Hotel. However, by 1986, there were only a few floors open in the hotel, and the Boom-Boom Room had closed. The “sense” of history (and the name “Nausea Bay”) became literal when sewage came up through the tub drain in one of our rooms. The following year, we chose a different hotel (and the Nassau Bay Hotel was demolished a few years later).

LPSC poster session, 1994

The author (far right) chats with another conference attendee during the 1994 poster session. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute.

Until 1991, the Planetary Geology Program still required its funded investigators to attend the PGPI meetings. In the beginning, their presentations actually contributed to their Progress Reports, somewhat similar to the very first Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference. This program covered a broad range of disciplines, from the solar system formation to planetary mapping (and eventually was renamed to the Planetary Geology and Geophysics Program, or PGGPI). By the early 1990s, the line between topics in the PGGPI and LPSC meetings had blurred. As the PGGPI meetings ended, there was another surge in LPSC abstracts between 1990 and 1991, strengthening the role of the Houston conference as the key meeting where new findings about the planets, as well as the Moon, were presented.

In the early 1990s, striking new images of the surface of Venus resulted from the Magellan mission, and in the mid-1990s the Clementine mission returned new remote-sensing data about the Moon. But the number of abstract submissions remained relative constant (700–800) until 1999. In 1998, Lunar Prospector was launched, the Mars Global Surveyor first orbited Mars, and both Mars Pathfinder and Galileo mission (Galilean satellites) results were being reported. As a result, the 30th LPSC in 1999 featured a large increase in the number of abstracts (from 823 to 1075).

Until about 2002, most presentations used slide projectors or viewgraph projectors, eventually with dual screens. Some government presenters preferred viewgraphs because they were easier to create and display. In the large gyms, black curtains surrounded the platform with the slide projectors like a scene from the Wizard of Oz. We all have stories of upside down or reverse slides, projectors that stuck, and blown bulbs that reduced our talks from 10 minutes to 5. During the transition from slides to digital presentations, I noticed that the power of the projectors dropped precipitously (and not because of the contrast between the old and new media). I suspect they used lower-wattage bulbs as a not-so subtle way to encourage luddites to make the transition. I finally did.

LPSC poster session at UHCL in 2000

Finding a suitable place for the LPSC poster session was one of the biggest challenges to remaining in the Clear Lake area. In 2000, the posters were displayed in the atria at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. But the poor lighting in that area, combined with the physical distance from the oral sessions, resulted in the decision to continue to look for other venues. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute.

In 2002, LPSC moved to the South Shore Harbor Hotel in League City, largely in response to security concerns after the September 11 attack the previous year. [Editor’s note:  Security increased substantially at all NASA centers, and it was not clear whether the Gilruth Center would remain inside or outside the gates.] This move still allowed satellite meetings either at the hotel, at the LPI, or even at NASA JSC before or after the meeting. In addition, attendees still could make visits to the NASA Visitor Center. But after 7 years, this venue also became too small, and in 2009 LPSC moved to The Woodlands (north of Houston) for the 40th LPSC. Even though this venue was much farther away from NASA JSC, many researchers and students still headed down to the LPI or NASA JSC before and after the meetings.

The new millennium ushered in a flood of new data from both NASA and foreign missions (Mars Odyssey, Spirit/Opportunity, Mars Express, Rosetta, MESSENGER, Deep Impact, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix, Kaguya, Dawn, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, and LCROSS). By the end of the decade, the 41st LPSC had more than 1800 abstract submissions. These were the golden years of planetary exploration and discovery reflected in the flood of abstracts, which increased from 1100 at the 31st LPSC in 2000 to over 1800 at the 42nd LPSC in 2011. By the 44th LPSC, this number increased to over 2000, a level maintained at the 49th LPSC. Anyone with a broad interest had difficulty in deciding which session to attend. [Editor’s note:  In spite of the partial government shutdown in the U.S., this year’s 50th LPSC garnered a record number of abstract submissions:  2282.]

Mars special session at LPSC in 2004

One of the most highly attended LPSC special sessions was the Mars session in 2004, at which science results from Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity were presented for the first time. Not only was every available chair taken, but attendees sat on the floor by the projection screen, stood along the walls in the front and back of the room, and stood outside the doors, straining to hear the talks. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute.

From the very beginning, the LSI/LPI arranged for the Galveston Limousine Service to shuttle conference goers between the LPSC venue and their hotels. Dominic Noto, who owned the service, is now one of the six remaining people who have been at all 50 meetings. Even after retiring and selling his service, Dominic still comes to the meeting and greets LPSC goers, simply because it is part of his legacy as well. If you see him at this year’s conference, give him a “high-five.”

This is my own reflection about the history of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conferences. I suspect that others would focus on different areas (e.g., the Hawaii or Arizona parties), and it would be great to hear their perspectives. The LPSC continues to include the latest results about planetary exploration while including fundamental research in lunar/planetary geology, exoplanets, exobiology, future mission planning, education, and public engagement with over 2000 abstract submissions from researchers around the world in 2018. What had started with coverage of just the Moon has now expanded to cover the entire solar system and beyond. This year marks my 50th conference, and I have to be there, just to be blown away by the latest results, whether from a mission or new interpretations of old data. Several years ago, I was not sure if I’d make it to the meeting (things happen). In the worst-case scenario, I asked my students to spread my ashes across certain seats at the 50th LPSC, just to leave my mark “behind.” Rest assured that I’ll be there one way or the other.