The challenge of "being and becoming"
Fraser Thomson, Sc’92, once had an out-of-this-world plan to become an astronaut. That hasn’t worked out. Not yet anyway. Even so, Fraser couldn’t be happier with his personal life or the green turn his career has taken.
Reaching for the astronaut goal pushed me to achieve things I’d never have achieved [otherwise], and I became a better person in many ways.
Back in 1996 when he was a career-driven, 20-something single guy living the California dream, Fraser Thomson had passion, determination, and a grand 10-year plan: he wanted to become an astronaut. Today, 14 years later, Fraser still has plenty of passion and determination, but somewhere along the way, his grand plan changed. Yet the 43-year-old electrical engineer couldn’t be happier now that he’s married, has a son, and is working as a NASA research scientist.
“Writer Saul Bellow make a great distinction in his 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King,” Fraser observes. “A character says, ‘There are two types of people in the world: those who are being, and those who are becoming.’ I've always tried to be both."
After completing his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering at Queen’s, Fraser went on to graduate studies at Stanford, earning both his Master’s degree and a doctorate before applying to enter the astronaut program the first opportunity he had. Because it took 10 years to become a U.S. citizen, that was in 2009. “I made it to the top 50 out of 5,000 or so before I got cut,” he recalls.
Regardless, Fraser is happy with his efforts. “Ten-year plans like the one I've been following can be dangerous,” he says. “You've got to remember to enjoy the journey. Reaching for the astronaut goal pushed me to achieve things I’d never have achieved [otherwise], and I became a better person in many ways.”
He says he will probably apply to the astronaut program again when another opportunity arises; however, for now he’s content to be earthbound, spending time with his wife Kat and one-year-old son and working as a senior research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Fraser is challenged by his volunteer work at the Center, which involves working with associate director Steve Zornetzer to build a portfolio of green interests. The two men are focusing on four main areas of inquiry: green aviation, clean energy, climate modeling, and sustainable systems.
Green aviation includes electric airplane technologies for general aviation, biofuels in aviation, and advances in air traffic control (ATC) routing. “ATC routing technology is considered green because better aircraft routing will lead to less actual flight hours, leading to less burned fuel and fewer greenhouse gas emissions,” explains Fraser.
Clean energy includes wind, solar, and biofuels. “We have top-notch aerodynamicists and test facilities that we can apply to wind energy technology research---this one will probably be a partnership play with small private ventures,” Fraser says.
The astrobiology group at Ames has spawned several research projects that have made significant advances in biofuel technology. “Perhaps the most promising technology is attributed to Dr. Jonathan Trent who has developed a system for farming biofuel at sea in bags that were originally designed to treat waste water onboard the International Space Station,” says Fraser.
As for climate modeling, he notes that NASA Ames has “some of the most advanced supercomputing facilities on the planet, which are being applied to climate models that help researchers better understand the state and evolution of earth's climate.”
The center is in the process of constructing a twin-winged building that they’ve coined Sustainability Base. The facility will become a test bed for new sustainable building design practices. “The building has a LEED Platinum rating,” says Fraser. “We’re looking at partnerships with local technology companies that could potentially allow us to take this ultra energy-efficient 50,000 square-foot facility off the power grid.”
Fraser loves the creative element of building this “green portfolio.”
“I like trying to figure out how to best utilize NASA's in-house talent and the extraordinary talent that’s resident to the Bay Area in a mutually-beneficial way--be that talent entrepreneurial, scientific, or other. I love problems where there’s more than one solution. This is a perfect example.”
Since becoming a father last year, improving the planet is high on Fraser’s priority list. “Green technology is good on so many levels---it's good for the human mind because it drives advances in basic science, engineering, and potentially in economic and business modeling. That's a lot of inspired creativity keeping people off the streets. As I see it, this is one of the most exciting areas in science/engineering research today.”