Metro

Peter E. Glaser, 90; engineer hoped to harvest sun’s energy

Dr. Glaser’s research was published more than 300 times.
Ted Dully/Globe Staff/File 1982
Dr. Glaser’s research was published more than 300 times.

In the years before the early-1970s oil embargo focused attention on energy use, Peter E. Glaser came up with an idea to use large satellites to gather solar power and beam it to earth via microwaves.

“It was pretty far ahead of his time,” said Alfred Wechsler, a former colleague. “Peter was in that sense a visionary, and an enthusiastic visionary.”

In a November 1968 Science magazine article, “Power from the Sun: Its Future,” Dr. Glaser sounded themes that are commonly discussed today as he wrote that “solar energy as a significant source of power has not been utilized.”

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“Whether or not the human species will continue to expand could depend on our ability to develop alternative energy sources,” he wrote, adding that “control of the environmental deterioration that results from our efforts to meet the increasing demands for power from available energy sources will be increasingly more difficult and more costly.”

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Dr. Glaser, a former vice president at the consulting firm Arthur D. Little, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease May 29 at his home in Lexington. He was 90.

During 45 years at Arthur D. Little, from which he retired in 1999, Dr. Glaser also designed and worked on experiments that were used as part of the Apollo 11 mission that first put men on the moon, and then on the space shuttle Columbia.

But his advocacy for solar power placed him at the forefront of alternative energy thinking. He received a patent for his satellite-based plan in 1973.

“It is very clear there is no certainty that one technology alone can meet all of our future needs,” Dr. Glaser told the Globe that December. “What we need is a portfolio of energy production methods, so we may be careful to consider all options.”

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A year before, he had told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “power from space has the potential to provide an economically viable and environmentally and socially acceptable option for power generation on a scale substantial enough to meet a significant portion of future world energy demands.”

The federal government spent $20 million on studies examining his ideas, only to decide that Dr. Glaser’s vision for a satellite-based solar power program would be too costly.

Even Dr. Glaser knew that affordability would be a hurdle, so he suggested that the Sears catalog, then a staple in homes, could be used as a gauge for measuring acceptance.

“When solar energy starts showing up in that catalog, then I’ll know that solar energy has made it,” Dr. Glaser said.

Dr. Glaser “was a refined, lovely person who had a love for humanity, and he was doing tremendous engineering, trying to solve what he viewed as one of the essential problems facing the world: energy,” said Irving Plotkin, another colleague.

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For the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, Dr. Glaser was project manager for the lunar ranging retroreflector array, which allows scientists to use lasers to measure the distance between Earth and the moon. With the shuttle Columbia, he was among the scientists responsible for creating the initial blood storage experiment, which examined how gravity affects human blood.

“Peter was very creative, but he also was gifted at working with others and allowing their expertise to contribute and inform the whole enterprise,” said Theodore Heuchling, a former colleague. “Peter’s gift was as an initiator and at working with people to evolve things that he had begun.”

Dr. Glaser’s work was widely published in more than 300 papers and books. Space science was comparatively new when Dr. Glaser conceived of his satellite solar power plans.

“And I knew I was taking an enormous risk,” Dr. Glaser said in an oral history interview conducted by John Elder in 1994 for the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Md. “We hadn’t landed on the moon, and I was talking about obtaining power from space for use on Earth. But I felt that it was a risk worth taking, and I was convinced that we could do it.”

Dr. Glaser was born in Zatec, Czechoslovakia. During the Nazis’ rise, he and his family fled to England, where part of his wartime civilian duties included working on a farm. He then served with the Free Czechoslovak Army in 1943, becoming a tank commander.

By Dr. Glaser’s count, 35 family members died in the Holocaust. In later years, he spoke to school groups about his experiences during that period.

When World War II ended, he returned to Prague, and then attended Leeds College of Technology in England. In the late-1940s, he moved to New York City, arriving with just one suitcase and several of his favorite books. He studied mechanical engineering at Columbia University, from which he received a master’s and a doctorate.

In 1955, he married Eva Graf, whom he had met while at Columbia. She was drawn to him by his magnetic smile, which she said was one of the first things most friends noted in their condolence cards.

The family settled in Lexington, where Dr. Glaser and his wife and other Jewish families started Temple Emunah, a conservative congregation.

“One thing that has always struck me, and more so as I grew older, was his incredible modesty,” his daughter Susan Goodman of Bedford said.

He was not ostentatious, said his son Steven of Weston, Conn., who noted that his father drove cars until they rusted out. “He was very proper, but low-key,” Steven said.

Dr. Glaser’s early days farming came in handy when the family bought 20 acres in Vermont. “Give him a tractor and a pair of pruning shears and he was the happiest man in the world,” his son said.

Dr. Glaser also retained his refined European manners and “was Old World European,” said his daughter-in-law Roxanne of Weston, Conn. “He would speak as kindly and would be as focused and interested if you were the Queen of England or if you were the street sweeper.”

A service has been held for Dr. Glaser, who besides his wife, daughter, and son leaves another son, David of New York City, and eight grandchildren.

When anyone asked questions about science, Dr. Glaser “was always very patient and very happy if someone was interested, and he tried to explain it so that people would understand,” his wife said.

Dr. Glaser “had a great imagination of what could be and how it could be better,” David said. “He was very practical.”

Emma Stickgold can be reached at estickgoldobits@gmail.com.