Director of UA Lunar and Planetary Lab dies at 65

Michael J. Drake (Source: LPL)
Michael J. Drake (Source: LPL)

TUCSON (KOLD) - University of Arizona professor Michael J. Drake, who helped guide the growth and prestige of the university's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, has died at the age of 65.

Drake passed away at the University of Arizona Medical Center-University campus, according to a campus statement.  Drake was a Regents' Professor and director of the LPL as well as head of the department of planetary sciences.

Drake joined the UA planetary sciences faculty in 1973.  He had headed LPL and the planetary sciences department since 1994.  When he arrived, the lab was much smaller, occupying only a part of what is now the Kuiper Space Sciences Building.

He went on to become the principal investigator of the most ambitious UA project to date, OSIRIS-REx, an $800 million mission designed to retrieve a sample of an asteroid and return it to Earth.  OSIRIS-REx is due to launch in 2016.  It is the largest grant or contract the UA has ever received.

Drake also played a key role in several other high-profile space projects, including the Cassini mission to explore Saturn, the Gamma-Ray Spectrometer onboard NASA's Mars Odyssey Orbiter, the HiRISE camera onboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Phoenix Mars Lander.

Peter Smith, the principal investigator for the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, began working with Drake when Smith was building the camera for the 1997 Mars Pathfinder.

"We would meet monthly to review progress and plan strategy," Smith said. "Mike always encouraged excellence and made sure that the University was providing full support to our programs. Over the years, as my career progressed through various missions to Mars, he was there when troubles surfaced and a political push was needed."

Drake also was a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the Geochemical Society and the Meteoritical Society, and he was president of the latter two.

Timothy Swindle, the assistant director at LPL said: "Not only was he a world-class scientist, but he was a tireless advocate for the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and all the people who have worked here. Personally, he was a friend and mentor for me, and for many others, and we will miss him deeply."

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