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January 26, 2005:


J. Victor Lebacqz ’64 *77 is working on an airplane, the Mars Flyer, that can fly on another planet.


Above, an artist’s concept of a potential design for the Mars Flyer. (photos courtesy J. Victor Lebacqz ’64 *77)

Going to Mars
J. Victor Lebacqz ’64 *77 leads NASA’s aeronautical research

When J. Victor Lebacqz ’64 *77 left NASA’s Ames Research Center for a high-level post at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 1, 2003, it was the very day, as it happened, that the space shuttle Columbia exploded, killing all seven crew members aboard. Like everyone at NASA, Lebacqz was stunned. “People went through a pretty dark time,” he says. But two years after that tragedy, the agency, with Lebacqz serving as NASA’s associate administrator in charge of aeronautical research, has refocused and redoubled its efforts to get back on track.

Lebacqz’s portfolio doesn’t include the space shuttle, but it does include a bevy of cutting-edge projects. Of these, the most exciting is the Mars Flyer project, which would be the first airplane able to fly on another planet. The 20-foot-long craft is designed to be transported to Mars (or another planet with an atmosphere) and fly about a kilometer above the surface, in the hope of gleaning scientific information about the planet. If the technology pans out, the project could provide a level of observational detail more accurate than that of orbiting spacecraft, and more wide-ranging than that provided by Spirit and Opportunity, the rovers that were parachuted onto Mars in January 2004 to photograph and test the Martian surface. The Flyer also would give engineers their first opportunity to fly an airplane remotely on other planets.

The Flyer is being designed to be dropped into the Martian atmosphere by a transport vehicle. The Flyer would be folded into itself so that it makes the descent in the aerodynamic shape of a capsule. After a parachute slows the Flyer’s speed, the Flyer would spread its wings at a target altitude and begin to fly. NASA has successfully completed a test run using a prototype of the Flyer 110,000 feet above Earth. Lebacqz hopes to submit the Flyer for a mission in 2009.

“The technical challenges facing the Flyer are the same ones that face any aeronautical vehicle,” he says. “The weight has to be as little as possible, given that we don’t know too much about the atmosphere it will be flying in.” Another challenge: finding a way to provide fuel for it, or to extract fuel somehow from Mars itself.

Lebacqz, who earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in aeronautical engineering at Princeton, joined NASA in 1978. Since his promotion to the agency’s headquarters, he’s been overseeing several major areas of research, including enhancing the safety of passenger planes, improving systems to control aviation traffic, and building planes that are quieter and less polluting. He’s also worked on the development of the X-43A, a 12-foot-long supersonic airplane that has set a world record for flying at 10 times the speed of sound.

Although Lebacqz doesn’t oversee NASA’s manned space-flight program, he feels the same exploratory rush with projects such as the Mars Flyer. “In the pictures taken by Spirit or Opportunity, you can see little tracks behind them. I see those as the tracks you can see on the Oregon Trail.”

By Louis Jacobson ’92

Louis Jacobson ’92 is deputy editor of Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C.