A&S Interview: Farouk El-Baz
A veteran space scientist discusses the challenges of the 21st Century.
- By Elizabeth Howell
- Air & Space magazine, November 2008
(Page 3 of 4)
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.
In the ‘60s, we were beginning to plan to select sites for the astronauts to land on the moon. Now, this is a geological question. Where do you land? The place has to be safe for landing, meaning as horizontal as you possibly can because you don’t want them to land on a steep slope, or the mission would be lost. And, the place has to be free of very large rocks, so that when they land, they will land on a flat surface, where not one of the legs of the spacecraft won’t land on a high rock somewhere. The place can’t be rocky.
Now, how to figure this out? There was no way. We had no maps of the moon to tell us about the topography, and we had no high-resolution images of the moon to see which places have rocks and which ones have not. We didn’t know even know whether [craters] on the moon were formed by the impact of meteorites, or formed by explosions.
So there were all kinds of basic questions that we had no idea what the answers might be. We had to generate as good as answer as we possibly could based on looking at pictures, photographs. So we began to get a good photograph as we possibly can by unmanned missions prior to Apollo, mostly from something called Lunar Orbiter, but we also had Ranger and we had Surveyor.
So you could say our understanding and analysis of these pictures became the basis for selecting landing sites on the moon, and the following missions, and so on, and that became the basis for what we now know as the feat of remote sensing and imaging of the Earth, as well as other planets, from orbit. So we can see the features and begin to interpret them better.