A&S: With the renewed impetus on private space travel, is there a place for NASA and other government-funded space agencies in the next century?
El-Baz: Yes, indeed. There’s the expense of space exploration for scientific purposes, to collect data and information about the outside world, or the solar system, and beyond. It’s something that actually must continue to be paid for by governments.
So, both NASA and the European countries, and the Soviet Union, will be joined soon by China and India and Japan. These countries will continue to expend money on collection of scientific data and knowledge from space, basically because in the process, you invent all kinds of things that become helpful to the economy.
If you consider space exploration in the United States of America, then you’d see that a great deal of what goes on in the world today, the way we communicate, the way we are using cell phones, the way we use television, the way we see events everywhere in the world, all of these incredible developments in the past half a century, was due to the fact that the space program occurred [due to advances in satellite technology and computer miniaturization]. And step by step, all kinds of things had to be done and therefore, applications were found for things that were done in space. So the governments see that expenditure on space exploration for the collection of knowledge has honest-to-God real benefits for the economic development of the country, and the world.
A&S: Much of your current research focuses on desert climates. What sort of advances in global travel are needed to better protect these environments?
El-Baz: Quite a bit, because of the fact that very few people really understand very dry environments, which we call the desert. And there is a great deal to learn from the desert, and from the way the desert used to be, and the changes that happened to these places. Because, these kinds of changes tell us of what might be happening in the future.
For instance, we have realized that the very dry desert environments today were not so at all just 5,000 years ago. Between 5,000 years ago and 11,000 years ago, these places were savannah-like environments with minifers and lakes, and varieties of plants and animals, and that. And then the climate changed, and we don’t know exactly what caused these great changes in the environment and conditions for thousands or tens of thousands of years – how they began. We know they are related to changes in the energy that is received from the Earth by the sun. But how the mechanism and changes began – we don’t know. We should understand these places and see what happens in them, because we can learn things from these former changes that might give us hints of what changes in the future might be.
Global travel has very little influence or imprint on these places. For instance, in most of the countries in north Africa, if you want to go from one country to the next one, so that you can see a similar kind of terrain to where you live, you have to fly between that country and Europe somewhere – in most cases, Paris or London or Rome – and then back to north Africa, the other way. Meaning that there’s not even contact or travel between one country and the next one, the one right next door, to the left or to the right, to the north or to the south. You have to go outside of the continent, outside of north Africa altogether, to travel to Europe so you can go to the country that is right next door. So some of these countries have very little international travel, and many of the countries require additional ways to make it easier and better, and perhaps some more of these reasonably priced aircraft to travel between each other.
A&S: How do you apply your knowledge from Apollo to your work today?
El-Baz: Well, actually, everything that we do with satellite images comes from the experience of Apollo missions to the moon.