A mentor, friend and colleague — recollections of Dr. Mieczyslaw Gregory Bekker

by J.Y. Wong
Professor Emeritus and Distinguished Research Professor
Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

[ISTVS is pleased to share Dr. Wong’s remembrances of our founding member, Dr. M.G. Bekker which will appear in a book being published in Polish this year and in English in 2016. —ed.]

Dr. Andrzej Selenta informed me in early 2015 that the State School of Higher Education in Chelm, Poland, planned to publish a book, in both Polish and English, to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Bekker, and asked me to contribute an article. I felt honoured to have the opportunity of paying tribute to my mentor, friend and colleague of more than two decades.

Dr. Bekker is widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of Terramechanics, a branch of applied mechanics focusing on the study of the interaction between vehicles and soil working machinery and their operating environment — the terrain.

In fact, the term Terramechanics was coined by him and introduced in the subtitle of his second book, Off-The-Road Locomotion – Research and Development in Terramechanics, published by the University of Michigan Press, 1960.

He played a leading role in the development of the Lunar Roving Vehicle for the U.S. space programs in the 1960s. The rover was successfully deployed and operated by astronauts on the lunar surface on Apollo missions 15, 16 and 17 in the early 1970s.

His three classic treatises, Theory of Land Locomotion, Off-The-Road Locomotion, and The Introduction to Terrain-Vehicle Systems, published in 1956, 1960 and 1969, respectively, laid the foundations for the discipline that he founded and have become the principal references for professionals in the field.

His other outstanding achievements, both in theory and in practice, are detailed in other parts of this book, and will not be reiterated here. Suffice to say, his seminal contributions and extraordinary achievements assure him a prominent place in the history of Terramechanics.

I first met Dr. Bekker at the 2nd International Conference of the International Society for Terrain-Vehicle Systems (ISTVS), in Quebec City, Canada, 1966. At the conference, he delivered the inaugural St. Christopher Lecture. I was introduced to him by my research supervisor, Dr. Alan Reece, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, who was the founding Editor of the Journal of Terramechanics, and was the first president of ISTVS. Dr. Reece had worked in the early 1960s, as a visiting scientist, at the Land Locomotion Laboratory, established by Dr. Bekker in the mid-1950s for the U.S. Army Ordnance Tank Automotive Command, in Warren, Michigan. At the conference, I presented a joint paper with Dr. Reece on “Soil failure beneath rigid wheels,” which formed part of my Ph.D. research. After my presentation, I received much encouragement from Dr. Bekker. In 1967, he visited the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and I had the pleasure of meeting him again.

After obtaining my Ph.D., I moved to Canada and joined the Faculty of Engineering, Carleton University in 1968. At the time, concerns over the impact of transportation on the environment had begun attracting attention. During the period of 1971–72, with the support of the University, I organized a series of public lectures on “Transportation Technology and the Environment” at Carleton. Dr. Bekker was invited to deliver the first lecture in the series, entitled “Accomplishments and future tasks in off-road transportation,” November 16, 1971. The other invited lecturers included Dr. Reece and Professor N.W. Radforth, who was the third president of ISTVS. Their presentations were later published in a special issue of the Journal of Terramechanics, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1974.

Dr. Bekker was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering by Carleton in 1975, for his outstanding contributions to “laying the foundations for the development of quantitative study of terrain-vehicle systems, a methodology without which rational design and optimization of terrain vehicles would not be possible,” as noted in the citation.

In the early 1970s, I began developing a closer relationship with Dr. Bekker. In early 1976, during a business trip to California, I paid a visit to Dr. Bekker in Santa Barbara. I discussed with him my thoughts of organizing a professional development program on vehicle mobility for professionals in industry, government agencies, and research institutions, with the aim of providing them with the latest information on the advancements in the field. At the conclusion of the discussion, he agreed to join me in offering the first professional development program on “Terrain-Vehicle Systems Analysis,” at Carleton University, August 23–26, 1976. It attracted a large number of professionals from Canada and abroad. Since then, with the continued interest of the professional community, Dr. Bekker and I had jointly offered similar programs at Carleton in 1977, 1978 (with guest lecturer Dr. Reece), 1980 (with guest lecturer J.R. Radforth), and 1985.

In the summer of 1978, at the invitation of General Stig Areskoug, on behalf of the Swedish Society for Collaboration on Terrain-Vehicle Research (SFM), Dr. Bekker and I presented a similar program in Sweden. In August 1985, the last time he and I jointly offered the program at Carleton, 35 professionals from three continents and eight countries participated, among them, General V. Romano of Italy and Dr. J. Pinto-Silva, ISTVS National Secretary for Spain. On that occasion, we also celebrated Dr. Bekker’s 80th birthday at a dinner reception, together with all participants of the professional development program. It was fitting to celebrate his 80th birthday in Ottawa, as he did much of the fundamental study on the theory of land locomotion in Ottawa, sponsored by the Department of National Defence and the National Research Council of Canada, during the period from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s.

Since Dr. Bekker passed away in 1989, I have continued presenting professional development programs on vehicle mobility in Canada and abroad, at the invitations of various organizations in many countries around the world. In recent years, an increasing number of nations have shown growing interest in surface exploration on the Moon, Mars and beyond. At the invitations of the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), NASA Glenn Research Center, and the Canadian Space Agency, I have presented programs on “Terramechanics and Extraterrestrial Rover Mobility” to illustrate the applications of Terramechanics to the development of rovers for extraterrestrial surface exploration, following Dr. Bekker’s footsteps.

During the period of 1982 to 1983, Dr. Bekker and I worked on a research program sponsored by the National Research Council of Canada (NRCC). Out of this research came a series of NRCC research reports on the advances in soil strength measurement and characterization, and in the prediction of tire performance on unprepared terrain.

In the early 2000s, I proposed the establishment of the Bekker-Reece-Radforth Award to the ISTVS Board of Directors. The proposal was subsequently approved and the first award was presented at the 14th International Conference of ISTVS in Vicksburg, Mississippi, U.S.A., 2002. Since then, this award has been presented at each international conference of ISTVS to a recipient with outstanding research achievements or with exceptional contributions to product innovation in the field.

On reflection, I had the good fortune to have Dr. Bekker as a great mentor, a trusted friend, and an excellent colleague. His enthusiasm for exploring new frontiers of knowledge, his creative mind, and his meticulous and rigorous approach to research had made a striking impression on me. His vision for vehicle mobility research has inspired me in my professional career. Furthermore, his encouragements had provided me with impetus in research. In his letter to me of August 30, 1985, after we had jointly presented the professional development program and celebrated his 80th birthday in Ottawa, he wrote: “The hopes for your continuation of Land ‘Movimento fuori strada’ are the triumph of my 55 years of work, as well as its coronation.” I am sure that his hopes will be fulfilled by the efforts of all those actively engaged in the field and that Terramechanics will continue flourishing in the future.