The Challenges of the 21st Century

The veteran space scientist, Farouk El-Baz, looks toward the future.

(Christine Romo)
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Farouk El-Baz is the Director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University.  For the past two generations, Farouk El-Baz has spent his career interpreting satellite photographs. The Egyptian-born geologist tracked science sites for the Apollo moon astronauts, and pioneered the use of orbital photographs to research desert environments. Most recently, he served on the National Academy of Engineering’s blue-ribbon panel concerning the top issues facing engineers and scientists in the next century.  Elizabeth Howell spoke with El-Baz last February.

Air & Space: In February, you chaired a panel at a science conference in Boston discussing engineering challenges for the 21st century. What challenges does aerospace face?

El-Baz: Definitely the future of manned spaceflight, because we know that human beings are going to reach outward, seeking knowledge in outer space, and there will be a necessity to know the effects of long-range travel in space, which we don’t really know now. A trip to Mars might take two or three years – but the effects on human bodies, we don’t know. And how does that affect the efficiency of space travel? We don’t know. So there is that issue of space travel, since we know we’re going to be doing it.

The second one that comes right after that is also, aviation is going to increase in the future. There’s a whole new form of aviation in the future, which will be tourism in earth orbit. Many companies are taking people into people to orbit for short periods of time, at reasonable cost, so that people can go into space and see the Earth from space. Many, many people have already started to make reservations, and we know this is going to happen in the future. So how to make it safe and economical, and how to make it possible for the people? Because the people who do that won’t be subjected to very vigorous medical tests. So we want to make sure the equipment we use for this type of thing would, again, be safe and reasonable on the human body.

To add to all that, aviation is certainly going to increase in the future, as it has been increasing all along, and the capacity of the planes are going to increase. We also know [that] when that capacity will increase, we will need to have more safety measures for flying. So there are definitely a whole array of things that need to be dealt with by aviation and aerospace engineers to be prepared for: the next generation of aircraft for flying, spacecraft to take people into earth orbit as tourists, and then long-range space travel in space. So there are three components that need to be taken by aerospace and aviation engineers in the near future.

A&S: There’s been much talk about “carbon footprints”, especially in regards to aviation. How much of an effect does air travel have on the environment?

El-Baz: There’s a question about the fact that aircraft consume a great deal of fossil fuel. But in the meantime, if we would travel on land [across] the [same] distances that are travelled by aircraft, we would definitely have to add more toxic components in the atmosphere – with the carbon signature increasing, There is no question about it. So air travel reduces the carbon imprint if we make it available for everybody to move easier and faster and better, and so on. With that in mind, there is no question about the fact that people in the engineering field must begin to think about reduction of the amount of fuel that is used by air flight. Especially in takeoff and landing, planes consume a great deal during these two events. But in the meantime, air travel, in general, reduces the carbon imprint of human travel.

A&S:  How will space travel change in the next century?

El-Baz:  In two ways. One, there will be plenty more branches for tourism in space for all kinds of varieties. There will be people who go there for less than an hour, and there will be others that would stay for a few days, and maybe others that want to stay for their whole vacation. So there’s no question about the fact that space travel in near Earth orbit will increase a great deal in the next century. There will be, maybe, I would say within 20 years, we will see all kinds of spacecraft floating in Earth orbit, taking people up to look at the Earth from space and feel the zero gravity effects and all of that.

In addition to that fact, space travel by trained astronauts will increase progressively because all kinds of other countries are preparing themselves for that. We know for certain that China is doing that vigorously, and India will be following suit not too long from today. And I would say that other nations like Japan and the Europeans might have their own long-term and long-range space travel within the solar system. So with that, there is definitely room to expand space travel. It will no longer be limited to the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

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