Lunar Prospector, SSI and the Frustrations of Space Stuff

September 18, 2023

Author: Smith
It started on Wednesday. I get a call from a friend, says he’s down at the Dutch Goose with a guy who he thinks I should meet because “he loves that space stuff, like you.”

I say, “I’m coding. Work. Tight deadline.”

He says, “Deviled eggs.”

I walk down.

And I meet this nice person and we small-talk about the history of the Goose (first Pong game, first commercial internet node, a Silicon Valley icon where paparazzi leaves the big and small people alone with their families and their burgers) and my friend pulls out his phone, pulls up the website and shows him that post about Lunar Water, the one with the mention of SSI’s work with Alan Binder getting Lunar Prospector in gear. The man reads it and rolls his eyes.

I say, “What?”

“I’m sorry, I’m just tired of it. Space fanboys always SAY they’re part of some real space work. An Astronaut cuts himself shaving and you put out a press release pretending that you invented the band-aid. You’re all kidding yourselves… Sorry, nothing personal.”

I. Paused. My friend grinned (thanks budd, I shoulda known.).

But I collected myself. “I hear what you’re saying. I know EXACTLY what you mean. I could tell you my history and the time I took a sabbatical from a good career with solid gigs to finally figure out if the space stuff had any future for me. I could say that after doing a deep dive including what I thought would be real projects with some of the big-name famous space organizations, I came away with nothing but disappointment.  Once I got past the hype level and to the workings of the machines, I was convinced that NASA was always going to be NASA and the citizen groups were always going to be, year after another year, just churn on bright eyed 12 year olds and no tangibles. I got it. They’re working business models. I got it. And I hated it.  And I was right there ready to throw out the ton of stupid books and expensive journals and eat crow in front of my old work friends and head back to the real world.

“And then I, purely by accidental chance, met someone from what I had thought was the most out-there of all of the space organizations. And the most bizarre thing happened. This one crazy organization, this organization that had the outside public perception of the most silly, nutty ideas, showed me some things in their very private collection. And it was Saul to Paul in one afternoon in their control tower office at the Mojave Spaceport. I didn’t want it to be true, the big-name groups were obviously the pros with the real edge, right? And these guys, while they did have a long history with famous pretty pictures that the biggest brass of the other groups seemed to love to pull out and use for themselves IF it would get them some fast money (and get flighty billionaires to show up at their parties), were just into weird stuff. Giant stuff. Totally unrealistic stuff.

“Except… when I started seeing the stuff behind the famous pictures, the analysis and the numbers… Saul to Paul.  But that’s just me.”

He side-eyed, “Sure. Again, nothing personal, I’m just tired of space going nowhere.”

“Me too. But tell you what, that story about Alan Binder and Lunar Prospector is good. SSI was a real part of that project when the help was really needed. How he got it from idea to build to launch to data to game-changing information return is a great story.  And Prospector was real.  Real hardware. He wrote a book about it that tells exactly, almost minute by minute, what it took to get it to happen; If nothing else that’s great to read for any tech person who has to deal with development, regulations, funding, supply chains, PR … it’s just a good federal business book. It’s human, he rants at times – even about SSI – but it’s a very serious book. I can lend you my copy.”

“Great. Another book.”

We laughed. We ate. We went home.

Friday afternoon. That meeting really bothered me. Binder’s book is great, but it’s thick and I knew where this man was coming from. To give him a tome – no matter how good it might be once you crack it open – was just giving him another reminder of all the pages he’d already put time into and come up frustrated.  If I gave him my copy I’d never see it again and he probably wouldn’t read it. If I bought him a copy I’d be out the money and he probably wouldn’t read it. If I pointed him at Amazon he’d have to be find it in himself to make yet another investment when he was already on the outs with space stuff. What could I do? Was there a way to make the entry bar very low without sacrificing the soul of this truly good story?

Saturday morning. I did a quick search for “Lunar Prospector” on the website to get some specific fact dates (Way back when I was just starting to maybe consider trusting some of the Institute’s talk, I offered to convert their old newsletters to indexable web pages. It was a little win for them that would force me to look at every line they told themselves. Over time, that tedium has come in handier than I’d expected.). I drove to the Space Studies Institute archive, unlocked the document area, went to the newsletter files and grabbed 1985 to 1997 – the major years of Lunar Prospector work.

As I was locking up, I remembered that Robert Sugg, an SSI Senior Associate from the very beginning and a truly amazing archivist, had donated a good chunk of his Space Studies Institute personal collection to SSI. Along with his copies of the general-audience SSI UPdate newsletters, he also had correspondence with/from Gerry O’Neill and Gregg Maryniak and a nice set of “Private and Confidential” SA-Only documents. At this point, decades later, these SA-Onlies don’t *all* have to still be considered classified, so I opened that big date-ordered folder. I figured I’d do a binary search just to see if there was anything. And there, right there in the very first cut of the cards, was the gold. The November 10th, 1989 Gerry O’Neill letter that you see on the top of this page. Stick a fork in me, Jesus, I’m done :-).

Saturday night. Too much stuff. Way too much. Full Lunar Prospector write-ups, but a lot more smaller quick mentions as the work was progressing with bullet points of just a paragraph or two per issue. My goal was to give the realities but to try to make it easy and fast, not hundreds of pages that a person would have to work through. But for context, and for time because I have work to get back to by Monday morning, I couldn’t start a scrapbooking craft project. Right or wrong, decision was made: Go for the big ones from the startup to the first major public win. If it catches his attention and if he wants to see more, I know where the minutia is.

Sunday morning. Unboxed the Plustek and scanned. No time for the pixel level cleanup that we do on things like the SPS Research Library releases, they’ll have to look the way they looked.

Sunday afternoon. Wife playing Starfield – I’m more Mass Effect but Starfield is darned pretty. Used the laptop on the couch for fast ocr, simple hyperlinking of ‘continued on page x’ lines, used the Table of Contents feature to point to the important Lunar Prospector stuff among the other stories (that Sally Ride piece is mighty good, it’s not LP specific but the Ride Report was strong for Lunar, so added it to the TOC).

Sunday evening. Compiled to online reader format. Remembered that Alan Binder BBC4 dvd from the Australian “Exploring Space” boxed set, edited it down to just the bullets for a ‘what the heck’ bit of value-add AV. Made the credits very clear. The smart, professional SSI people won’t say it but I will, it’s really annoying when so many others use all the O’Neill and Space Studies Institute stuff without mentioning O’Neill’s SSI. So we don’t do that. Maybe that’s why we’re not billionaires and Mark Hopkins once fatherly-chuckled at me about it but, hey, it’s rude. So give the BBC and Wall to Wall their credit. Good documentary, too bad you can only get it these days in Australia. I hope it plays for you in this post, it should but if it doesn’t I do apologize.

Sunday night. Uploaded the files. Dang, now I have to write copy… how? Too tired to come up with a clever slant. How about honesty? It may be boring, but it’s how we got here.

“It started on Wednesday. …” … And here we are now.

And here it is:


(play with the buttons on the viewer, they’re there to help you. On a mobile device, the book will open in a new tab. Phone tip: double tap a column of text to bring just that column up, great for the thin columns of the SSI Updates.)

And here is Dr. Binder on the BBC4:

And here is that book:


1,100 pages of “Here’s how you make NASA do what they don’t really want to do. AND prove that there is water on the Moon.”  Maybe now it looks like there’s some hope in sticking with this space stuff?  That real things can be done?  Let me know at the Goose next week, if the boats come in with clean hauls they usually have fish & chips on Thursdays.


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