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NASA Scientist Maurice M. 'Mel' Averner, 72, Dies

Maurice Averner blended biology and engineering in work at NASA.
Maurice Averner blended biology and engineering in work at NASA. (John Rummel - John Rummel)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009

Maurice M. "Mel" Averner, 72, a NASA scientist who was the co-author of the first major scientific study to examine the possibility of sustaining human life on other planets, died Feb. 5 at his home in Fieldbrook, Calif. He had diabetes.

Dr. Averner (pronounced AV-er-ner) was for years a leading voice in NASA's life sciences programs. His advanced research in microbiology and biochemistry explored links between life on Earth and interplanetary travel and sought to turn science fiction into science fact.

In 1976, he and Robert D. MacElroy were the authors of an influential NASA study, "On the Habitability of Mars: An Approach to Planetary Ecosynthesis," that took the possibility of colonizing other planets out of the realm of fantasy.

Their work described conditions under which human beings could inhabit Mars and proposed ways in which plants could be adapted for outer space. It was, in the words of NASA senior scientist Joel S. Levine, "the first attempt to seriously define the problem and its potential solutions." It became the foundation of much experimental work in space biology at NASA and other research centers.

As program manager of NASA's Advanced Life Support Program, Dr. Averner blended biology and engineering to imagine ways people could live on other planets and on spaceships that might take them there. He suggested that Mars could be made into a hospitable environment for people -- the technical term is "terraforming" -- in a few hundred years.

"Mel Averner, a biologist by training and a highly intelligent and visionary thinker," Levine wrote in an e-mail, "provided many of the ideas for Mars terraforming that are still being pursued by researchers today."

Dr. Averner had been a biology professor in Oregon before he joined NASA's Ames Research Center in Northern California in the mid-1970s. He suddenly found himself working with Carl Sagan and other distinguished scientists, but even amid such high-powered thinkers he was known for his brilliant mind.

While working at NASA headquarters in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Averner founded NASA's Fundamental Biology Program, which studied the possibilities and limits of life in outer space. He was also the co-creator of the Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems project, which explored the effects of radiation in low-gravity environments and sought ways to use plants to support human life in space. Among other things, he explored "astroponics," a space-age adaptation of hydroponics, or a method of growing and regenerating plants without soil.

"We don't care if it grows upside-down or in a spiral as long as it provides nutrients," he said in 1987.

Still, Dr. Averner made his greatest contribution with his forward-thinking work suggesting that it might be feasible for people to live on Mars. He suggested that the right conditions -- temperature, water, sustainable plant forms -- could make Mars a second planetary home for human life.

"There are many, many barriers," he told the New York Times in 1991, "but none of them are insuperable in the sense that you have to breach a law of nature. You don't have to reverse gravity. It's very, very cold there, but it's not that much colder than the Antarctic, where people now live. There's very little water, but not much less than deserts where life now thrives. In general, it's not that much different from Earth. That's what's so interesting."

Maurice Melvin Averner was born April 3, 1936, in New York. He was a graduate of Brooklyn College and, in the mid-1960s, received a doctorate in microbiology from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He did postdoctoral work at Yale University, the University of Colorado and the National Jewish Health research center in Denver before becoming a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. By 1975, he was working with NASA in California.

Dr. Averner possessed a restless, all-encompassing intellect that ranged far beyond his field of expertise. He received a master's of public health degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1976 and, in the early 1980s, graduated from law school at San Francisco's Golden Gate University. It is unknown whether he ever took a bar exam.

About 15 years ago, he went into a coma after a heart attack, but he recovered and resumed his career. He left Washington in the late 1990s for California, where he designed a house in Humboldt County with Japanese gardens and an elaborate sound system for classical music.

He retired in 2004. His wife, Carol Orsinger, died the same year.

He had no immediate survivors.

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