The Challenges of the 21st Century

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

Christine Romo

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.

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.

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.

So whatever we do today with images of the forest, or the land surfaces, or agricultural areas of the world, or the desert landscapes – the way they have formed and they’ve changed in time – actually all of that goes back to the origin of looking at land pictures, which we learned at the very first with the Apollo missions to the moon.


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