Obituary for Maurice M. "Mel" Averner


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Maurice M. "Mel" Averner, a NASA scientist who introduced the concept of terraforming Mars to the space agency, died on 5 February 2009 at his home near Arcata, California, of complications of diabetes. He was 72.

Dr. Averner was enormously curious, intellectually gifted, and humble. Trained as a life scientist and with a degree in the law as well, Dr. Averner spent most of his career engaged in or promoting biological discoveries imperative to the life on this planet and to the people who might travel to distant planets. Early on, he saw the connections between the origin and evolution of our planet, its intricate biogeochemical cycles and the potential for the origin of life on other worlds. His career was distinguished by a broad-ranging influence on NASA life sciences.

Dr. Averner graduated from Midwood High School in Brooklyn, New York, and earned a B.S. degree from Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He earned a Ph.D. from Brandeis University and a J.D. from Golden Gate University before pursuing postdoctoral studies at Yale University, the University of Colorado, and the National Jewish Hospital and Research Center (Denver, CO). He earned a Master of Public Health, at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1967, while on the faculty at Southern Oregon College, Dr. Averner co-authored the world's first monograph on terraforming Mars, entitled, "On the Habitability of Mars: An Approach to Planetary Ecosynthesis." Terraforming, or altering the atmosphere of Mars to make it habitable for humans, via planetary engineering processes, is still being discussed in planetary circles and is the seed to more current discussions of planetary or geo-engineering to reduce the impacts of global warming on our planet.

Dr. Averner's career with the space agency began at the NASA Ames Research Center where he was the co-developer of NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems (CELSS) Project. CELSS supported research aimed at growing crop plants in space to support long-duration missions. Dr. Averner participated in the US/USSR Joint Working Group on Space Biology and Medicine, as a member of the Life Support Implementation team, and traveled to Siberia for the first US/USSR meeting on CELSS/BIOS in 1990. In this and all of the NASA life sciences programs, Mel Averner was a consistent voice for the integration of biological approaches with the more commonly-used engineering protocols.

In 1985, Dr. Averner moved to NASA Headquarters where he served as the Program Manager of NASA's Advanced Life Support Program and founded and managed NASA's Fundamental Biology Program. He later became the Program Manager for NASA's Global Biospherics Program. This program funded some of NASA's first research on global climate; supported remote-sensing research for the early detection of impending malaria outbreaks; focused scientific attention on global biomass burning; and created a freshwater initiative.

Although he spent many years working at NASA in Washington, DC, Dr. Averner successfully resisted the conventional government career track. He eschewed wearing a tie, even in the most formal meetings; he consistently turned down promotions so that he could remain a hands-on manager; and he elevated irony to a high art among his co-workers. He did not need credit, so he got a lot done. Two of his favorite sayings were: "Working in Washington is like being dragged down by ants," and "It must be pretty late in the day when ants cast such long shadows." This latter was an observation about egos. Dr. Averner was a recipient of NASA's Outstanding Leadership Award.

After retirement, Dr. Averner continued to consult on a wide variety of topics with professional colleagues. He was working on a project to extract biofuels from aquacultured algae in the last year of his life.

In addition to his own successes, Mel Averner was an exceptional and dedicated mentor and a loyal friend. He valued people but had little patience with foolishness and senseless bureaucracy. He was a visionary who recognized and appreciated vision in others.

Mel Averner was born in New York on April 3, 1936 and grew up in Brooklyn. He was a self-taught architect, a punster, and a leftie. He appreciated the music of Brahms and the very finest antioxidants. He was devoted to his wife, Carol Orsinger, who predeceased him in 2004. Mel Averner is survived by his ideas.

Contact: Penelope Firth, friend of the deceased. Dr. Averner had no living relatives.

703-507-7278 (cell) pfirth@nsf.gov

A photo is available.

The mortuary that handled the remains:

Paul's Chapel - Pierce Mortuary
Arcata, CA
707-822-2445

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