Lebacqz ’64 *77 is working on an airplane, the Mars
Flyer, that can fly on another planet.
an artist’s concept of a potential design for the Mars
Flyer. (photos courtesy J. Victor Lebacqz ’64 *77)
to Mars J. Victor Lebacqz ’64 *77 leads NASA’s
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
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.