Tribute by Dr. Michael Ben-Eli
September 15, 2007 - If anyone deserves to be remembered as a Master Design Scientist it would surely be Paul MacCready, who passed on August 28, 2007.
Paul spent his career pioneering extreme transportation solutions and the company he founded in 1971, AeroVironment, is a hotbed of breakthrough innovations in unmanned aerial vehicles, electric vehicles and non-polluting, alternative energy systems. In his work, Paul epitomized Bucky’s concept of doing more with less. He made aviation history in 1979, with Gossamer Condor, the first ever craft to sustain a controlled, human-powered flight. The feather light Condor, weighting only 70 pounds with a wing span of 90 feet, challenged conventional thinking about vehicle efficiency demonstrating an effective application of radical “performance per pound.” It was followed by the Gossamer Albatross and the first human-powered flight across the English Channel. Then came the sun-powered Solar Challenger, flying from Paris to an airfield in the UK, and later the remote-controlled, solar-powered Path Finder, which reached fifty thousand feet into the stratosphere.
I had the opportunity to meet Paul just weeks before he passed. The context was a series of interviews all part of a research project launched in collaboration with the Buckminster Fuller Institute. The purpose of the project is to research, refresh, and rearticulate the concept of Design Science with emphasis on its relevance to the sustainability challenges facing humanity today. Joshua Arnow, who initiated and has been deeply involved with this effort, suggested that sharing the experience of interviewing Paul with the BFI network would be an appropriate tribute to the man and his work. With some hesitation and a sense of deep humility, I agreed to make an attempt.
I met with Paul at AeroVironment’s corporate headquarters in Monrovia, California. I was excited by the prospect and was momentarily taken aback when I was greeted by a conservatively dressed, fragile looking elderly gentleman, not quite the image one would associate with an aviation hero. Paul was very formal at first, cordial if somewhat stiff, but he soon made me feel welcomed and very much at ease as we settled down to talk in the sitting area of his simple, unpretentious office. I found his deliberate, measured, no-nonsense, clear thinking manner, unassuming presence, and dry wit very refreshing. Throughout, I was consciously aware of a quiet sense of uncompromising integrity that he projected.
Paul talked about his early career in meteorology and cloud seeding and about the work done by his company on pushing the limits of performance and efficiency for air, land and sea vehicles. He was critical of the car industry, dominated, as he pointed out, by marketing and the development of superficial features, consistently producing a product which is wasteful, inefficient, oblivious to drag, polluting, and dependent on non-renewable energy source. He expressed his confidence in the efficacy of a battery powered car, which could ultimately perform well at one quarter of the fuel used today. He recounted his experiences of collaborating with General Motors on developing Sunraycer, his solar-powered racing car, which won a 1,800 mile race in Australia, in 1987, and the next effort with Impact, a battery powered electric concept car, which performed successfully but was not pursued by the giant corporation. With some glee, he recalled how he was driven to develop the Gossamer Condor by the burden of a financial debt and the promise of the cash prize, offered by British industrialist Henry Kremer for human-powered flight.
He talked about his boyhood days in Connecticut and summers spent with his family on a peninsula, miles from other kids, where he spent much time exploring alone, absorbed in a sense of wonder, fascinated by butterflies, moths and other flying creatures. He talked about his early reading on flying, collecting flying insects and building models of airplanes. He talked about self-reliance and the importance of independent thinking, starting at an early age, and he recalled the day-dreaming quality of his most creative moments. He felt that the possibilities demonstrated by his life’s work in land transportation and aviation were metaphors for the kind of changes required in the world. He saw his innovative designs as catalysts for thinking in new ways about the future.
Paul expressed deep concern about the state of the planet. He regarded population growth a serious problem. In order to illustrate the current state of affairs he pulled out a graph of total global mass of vertebrate life on land and in the air. It showed that by the year 2000, the combined mass of humans with livestock and pets stood at 98% of the total. A huge difference from 10,000 years ago when it was negligible. The trend, which accelerated dramatically in the last 300 years, meant, he argued, that humans with their domesticated animals have taken over the planet while other species continue to decline. He felt that unchecked population growth and over-consumption were critical issues neglected for too long. He pointed out, as have other observers, that at the rate we are going, more than one planet will be required in order to provide the raw materials for supporting a global population consuming resources at the North American rate.
“We are a system which will not work in the future” he observed, citing others who have been sounding the alarm for some decades. He was wondering out loud whether humanity has actually “missed the boat” since “all of our existing systems are simply not made up to deal with the coming realities.” He foresaw the possibility of expanding the good life, especially in some parts of the world, for the next quarter century, but expressed a strong sense of foreboding about some inevitable collapse that will follow with a period of misery for many. He felt that we need to do better and organize ourselves differently pointing out that that would require a focused, collective effort, of the kind experienced in the U.S. only during World War II, when a whole nation was completely involved in doing what it took to win. He also commented on the critical importance of widespread literacy of these issues and suggested that our school system needs to do much more in encouraging creative, independent thinking which, he felt, is now often stifled. He concluded that, first and foremost, we need to commit to the imperative of finding less energy intensive, less polluting ways to live and work.
Bucky saw the imperative of doing more with less as key to a comprehensive design revolution whose regenerative unfolding could secure enduring success for all humanity on vibrant Earth. Paul MacCready wholeheartedly agreed. In his own words: “Doing more with less is a vital feature of a world that works, where our increasing demands are met, yet do not overwhelm the limits of the earth."
Early in September, I sent Paul an e-mail message thanking him for his time and generosity, not realizing that he passed away just a week before. May his memory be blessed, and the world of possibilities opened by his work, be successfully pursued for the benefit of all.