Monday, 27 August 2012

Interview with Prof Farouk El-Baz

NSB was hugely chuffed recently to have the opportunity to interview Professor Farouk El-Baz, Research Professor and Director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts (Biogs at his site, Boston Uni and Wikipeida)

But the interview wasn’t about his current role. Oh no, no, no.

It was largely about his work with NASA in the late 1960s and early 1970s as Secretary of the Landing Site Selection Committee for the Apollo lunar landing missions, Principal Investigator of Visual Observations and Photography, and chairman of the Astronaut Training Group (described also fascinatingly here).


Here are the best bits of the interview. Enjoy.

NSB : Could you describe how you helped the Apollo program define a set of locations for the Moon landings?

El-Baz : I am a trained geologist and when I joined the Apollo programme it was two years before the first Apollo mission and the objective was to employ geologists in the selection of landing sites…The two components of consideration were that, first of all, that the landing site should be absolutely flat and safe, that there would be no blocks of rock so that the spacecraft can land easily and safely and the second objective was that after they land they are going to see some things on the ground so the site must be of some scientific significance.

I was also the Chief of the astronaut training, visual observations and of photography.

Flat Apollo 11 landing site

NSB : When you were choosing these landing sites, all you had were these images (from unmanned probes) so how did you know what the different geologies were?

El-Baz : It was only by interpreting things, so you look at the moon and you see round holes and you have to interpret - are these round structures made by impact meteorites on the surface or are they the result of volcanic explosions, because both processes would result in round shapes. There was a raging scientific discussion between people that thought that most of these craters were formed by volcanic explosion from within the moon while some others would say that most of these craters were formed by the impact of meteorites. The latter had more support because of the shapes of these craters. When we interpret photographs we can see things in the pictures that us that it is most likely by impact because it is a very rough terrain whilst volcanic craters would have smooth edges and smooth rims because of the lava that flows from the volcano.

Farouk El-Baz (right) training astronauts Ronald Evans and Robert Overmyer 

NSB : So did you start to get answers to questions when the astronauts were on the moon or was it only when the moon rocks came back to earth that you were able to say “now we know what this area is like, what this structure is like”

El-Baz : We had all kinds of questions and instructions for the astronauts while they were there to ask them to look for a rock that has larger crystals in it, get one that is fine grained and one that is coarse grained. If they say “I don’t see any coarse grained” we might say “Look for something that is close to the rim of the crater” because this is where you would have bigger chunks and you could break a chunk with a hammer and bring that - so there were discussions during the missions.

Apollo 17 image from the SE rim of Shorty Crater

NSB :To pick up on another of your roles in the Apollo programme, as Director of Photography - could you guide us through what happened when the astronauts had to take pictures of the damaged Apollo 13 Service Module ? That must have been a very stressful time for you!

El-Baz : A very stressful time and this was a few days of absolutely no sleep whatsoever because the Apollo programme director came to me and said “You’re the one that taught the guys how to take pictures - we need a picture of the service module and you better work out a scheme to tell them how to photograph that so that we know what actually happened”. The photography happened after they had been around the moon and come back towards the earth just as they separated to enter the earth’s atmosphere. So I had two and a half days to work on this. Who would take the pictures? What window would he be looking through (which was dependant on where the separation was going to happen exactly and the relative position of the sun)? And what kind of film to use? What kind of speed? And what is the separation speed of the spacecraft because if that was a little too fast then the picture will not be clear and we will not know what happened. Too slow and that same thing will happen.

There had to be calculations of the speed of the spacecraft, the rotation, the position of the earth, the position of the sun, the exact position of the two spacecraft, when they will separate, what the roll is - all of these things had to be calculated to within less than a second and then the astronauts would be standing somewhere at one of the three spacecraft windows and looking with a camera that is ready and you take the pictures. There are only a few seconds available so you will either get the pictures or not.

NSB : And could you practice that here on earth, did you have any mock-ups to see what would work?

El-Baz : We simulated that perhaps twenty times, not just once, looking at the spacecraft and the roll and where will the astronaut be? Will he look straight up ? Or will it come from one side? What is the roll of the spacecraft and the speed of separation? So it had to be modelled a multitude of times and then agreed so that there were specific instructions for the separation to be given to the astronauts so that the two spacecraft would come in a position and one of the astronauts can actually capture that picture.

The critial image that El-Baz spent 2.5 days setting up !

NSB : You were involved with the Apollo programme for two years before the first moon landing. Were there any points during this development phase when there were technical problems that made you think “This is a big issue, we might not be able to make this programme work”.?

El-Baz : At all times there were all kinds of problems and all kinds of accidents. One of these accidents the crew that were supposed to be on Apollo 11 died in a fire on the spacecraft on the ground. So there were many many showstoppers all along the way - including deaths of astronauts.

The Apollo 1 fire that killed Grissom, Chaffee and White during testing on the ground.

NSB :Thinking about the astronauts, they are not your ordinary person of the street - can you just give us a flavour of their characteristics as people, how are they different from “ordinary” people?

El-Baz : They were all pilots, very highly trained pilots. Many of them were test pilots, so they were very well attuned to looking at the machines, and hearing sounds and figuring out exactly what these velocities mean and so on - so they were solely focussed on the instrument panel of the spacecraft and their own feelings of the speed and the roll of the spacecraft and it’s reaction time so they were very sensitive to these things, ten times more so than an average individual.

And therefore it was really very difficult to get them to concentrate on descriptive science - Is this colour such and such? Is this crater oblong or is it perfectly round? These questions are not their kind of thing ! They are heightened by equipment, by instrument panels and by their own feel of velocities and roll and gyration within the spacecraft.

Neil Armstrong had previously been a test pilot

NSB : I understand that you managed to bring them round to looking at geology by giving then notes that were like flight notes so were similar to a format of instruction that they were used to.

El-Baz : That actually began by my own feeling that if the astronauts go to the moon as pilots we are going to learn very little from them. They are not going to add to our knowledge at all - we might as well just look at the pictures.

So what I began telling the astronauts is that there is a huge component here for Man otherwise why do we have astronauts going to the Moon? We can go with instruments.

The role of human beings is vastly more important. A description of something that a man can figure out, the ability of the eye to see differences in colour, the interaction between the eye and brain in describing what you see - these kinds of things can go way beyond what instruments can tell us, so the position of man is damned important - or else why does the Apollo program have human beings? We have to prove that Man has a huge component in this space mission. So this was to get them excited in the whole notion of Man’s role in spaceflight.

That worked to a limit, what worked more was to get them to compete with each other because these are highly competitive people and would compete with each other on anything. So we began to show some of them information so they became literate scientifically and then when they talked amongst the others the others want to know as much as they did because they want to compete with them.

So when they started to compete on scientific knowledge, which started in the middle of Apollo 13 and then beyond the competition was really very visible and that competition was what drove them to get into the scientific aspects of the mission.

Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott during geology training in New Mexico

NSB : As director of astronaut training, you must have been involved in considering what would happen if something went wrong - what happens if you land on the moon and you can’t take off again for example. How did you train the astronauts for this?

El-Baz : There were definitely discussions of that at all times, but remember that these were test pilots and that they flew aircraft before anyone else and there was no assurance that they would come back alive because that is the nature of test piloting and so they were kind of mentally prepared for disasters but in the meantime you have to continue to think about all the possibilities and for the Apollo programme - and it was something very specific to the US space programme and especially to the Apollo programme - that there was a back up for everything in the spacecraft and everything in the rocket - and sometimes there is a backup for the backup ! And so they felt a little safe because they knew that these back-ups will work out somehow.

One of the Apollo 15 parachutes failed to deploy properly, but since there was one extra chute for redundancy it could still spashdown safely.

NSB : What message do you have to people who believe that the Apollo programme was faked and that no-one really went to the moon?

El-Baz : Well these people have their point and they can look at things and interpret things differently - but my answer is a very specific answer and that is that even if they were faking everything including faking things to us (because some people thought that they did [the landing] in a Hollywood station somewhere and none of you guys that were working on it would know) and I tell everybody that when the astronauts returned from their missions they brought back with them rocks the like of which do not exist anywhere on earth, so these are very different kinds of rocks that are not earth produced at all and all of them from the same suite of things that do not exist on earth so they must have come from somewhere else.

Apollo 12 sample of KREEP, a rock unique to the Moon

NSB : We could talk for a lot longer about Apollo, but I wanted to touch on some of the other activities you have been involved in during your career. For example, you have been involved in academia in your native Egypt and I just wanted to ask you how has the general perception of science by the public and by the state changed over the last 30-40years.

El-Baz : It is very sad that over the last thirty years it had no significance to the leadership whatsoever. President Mubarak himself was not a technical man and not enthusiastic about science. He never read books himself so he was not a highly intellectual person. And he didn’t really support any of the scientific investigations and so on. He would give lip service to some activities but there was no support for science - they stopped sending Egyptians to study abroad for their Masters and PhD’s the way I was way back before his time.

And so during the thirty years things went downhill. And whenever things go downhill in Egypt, they go downhill in the rest of the Arab world. Right now it is very different because the revolution in Egypt, the peaceful revolution of the youth is specifically focussed on raising the level of science, technology and education in Egypt so I think the next twenty years will see a huge difference in the science of Egypt and the whole Arab world.

Tahrir Square during 8 February 2011
NSB : You would think that the state could see that strong countries have strong science and technology infrastructures and that it was harming Egypt to not have that - why would they pass up that opportunity?

El-Baz : They didn’t think it was harming Egypt, they thought that Egypt was doing very well because the people around the presidency were doing very well and to them, everything was fine - there were universities and people were getting degrees and they were doing as much as they could in giving them jobs. There weren’t enough jobs but the population was increasing too much because they continue to have babies so what can we do?

So, to them, everything was hunky dory and they could not see that Egypt was going down the drain, there was no production in Egypt, the country could barely feed itself, it was importing wheat and other stuff because they were not producing enough and there was no research in agriculture - even though there are good people who could do that research but were not being encouraged or given any budgets. So it became a very sad situation where the people in control of the country don’t see the reality and keep convincing themselves that everything is moving very well.

If you look at the countries where these (Arab Spring) revolutions occurred, they are all countries where military officers took over the control in the 1950s and 1960s and everybody was happy in these countries because we thought that the military are part of the population, they are decent people and they will work for the good, However, the military was trying to fix itself and the military has no vision of how to improve the science and technology locally or to encourage people. They can give orders and expect the orders to be listened to and obeyed - and that is no way to run a country and give individuals here and there the rights and abilities to do things. So that means all of these places where revolutions had brought in military people, these are the places that are now revolting against the tyrants that are running these countries and they want civil governments and civil liberties.

A World bank report on Education in Egypt

NSB : Could you tell us a little about the development corridor project that you are involved in?

El-Baz : Basically, I see the real danger in Egypt is the urban encroachment over agricultural land - this is agricultural land that has been deposited by the Nile over the last 1 million years - it is a fantastic soil and has survived being used for thousands of years, giving Egypt the best products in agriculture. But now people and the government are building on top of it and no-one is building on the desert on either side of the Nile - everyone builds right on top of the Nile, right on top of the good soil. The Ministry of Agriculture experts have actually said that Egypt has been losing about 30 thousand acres every year for the last 25 years, meaning that if you continue at this rate Egypt will lost all of its agricultural land in around 183 years - which is very dangerous. So you have to stop building on top of the agricultural land but you cannot do that unless you give people an alternative. So I thought about an alternative just west of the Nile where there is a plain that is very nice, very clean and very flat. In it are some areas of good soil where you could increase agriculture and some very nice flat areas where you can build as many cities and villages and universities and sports stadia as you want - this land which stretches the length of Egypt from the north to the south and lies parallel to the Nile. It is close enough to the places where people live now, you are just asking for development to move away from the Nile one kilometre at a time.

Egypt 2010 estimated population density per square kilometer

NSB : Lastly, all of our guests are asked a “Special Question” “What is the best thing about living in the UK” - now, of course, you live in the US so perhaps you can give us your perspective on the UK from where you are.

El-Baz : Well, I think it is the perseverance of the British people. I think that the British people have proved that they have a tough mettle. Look at this tiny little island that ruled half the world for a while. Look at the resilience of the Crown to this day and they way everybody rallies around the flag regardless of what the politics down below is like. And look at them with the Olympics, first holding it when no-one else wanted to in 1908, then again in 1948 and now once more in 2012. And they have been showing the world how they behave as a great nation.

James Dyson - an example of British perseverance

Notes :
Conspiracy theorists who insist that the moon landings were fakes will now also need to explain away recent imagery such as this one of the Apollo 17 landing site, complete with lunar rover tracks.

One surprising fact about the race to the moon is that there was a Russian unmanned lander in orbit around the moon at the same time as Apollo 11.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Curiosity, Twitter and the British Connection

No one who watched the "7 minutes of terror" sequence outlining how the Curiosity Mars rover would land could have escaped thinking "Crikey, that looks a bit complicated, not sure it'll work"

Curiosity being lowered by the skycrane - madness!

Well, at 06.31(UK time) on 6th August 2012, it did!

NSB, along with many millions of others was glued to a PC screen watching the live feed from the NASA control room, whilst simultaneously reading and writing Tweets. The approx 15min descent through the Martian atmosphere was an intense, incredible ride. Here is an outline of the landing (all times are Earth received, so 14minutes after the actual event):

And when NASA control got confirmation that Curiosity had successfully landed, the control room (and Twitter) went ballistic.
The Right Stuff

And stayed that way as, within a few minutes, the first images were received :

First images received within minutes, NASA servers immediately
crashed due to traffic from around the world

The Landing on Twitter

Twitter is a rather ephemeral environment, and it is perhaps worth mentioning some of the most memorable Tweets from the landing, which was characterised by very focussed tweeting and some serious retweetage...

Phil Plait was one of a number of Tweeters who pointed out that the time delay in receiving signals from Mars meant that as NASA was receiving information on the beginning of the descent, Curiosity was already on the Martian surface - the only question was whether it was there in one or one thousand pieces...

And it may have been Phil's Tweet that promted Christine Yant to make a nice theoretical phyiscs related comment on the nature of uncertainty...

There was great relief signals showed that Curiosity had sucessfully landed, with Tim Hwang showing how feedback might look if Curiosity had been sent by Amazon...

Ragebauer captured the mood of many sciency Americans unhappy at the recent cut in NASA's funding...

Meanwhile, Ben Dolman took a London2012 view of events in a comment that was retweeted some 8,000 times.

Stephen Curry, noting that Curiosity was nuclear powered, commented that it was an anniversary of a much darker use of that technology (see also here)...

Pablo Defendini captured the feelings of many as the first grainy images were sent back by Curiosity, just a few minutes after landing...

In terms of atmosphere, Ben Little, described some heartwarmingly geeky crowd chants at Times Square..

But for NSB, the most memorable Tweet came from AstroJenny, who captured the whole awesomeness of the event in a sentence that was made even more touching by it's ASCII-code related imperfection...

The British Connection
The Engineer has reported on how UK based high tech company E2v have developed the imaging sensors that equip Curiosity's Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin) and also the imaging sensors on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which captured a frankly jaw-dropping image of Curiosity rover parachuting down to the Martian surface (for extreme geekiness about this, see here)

The lander and its parachute captured, unbelievably, from the MRO orbiting satellite.

In addition, UK's Qinetiq, provided the Transceiver that is currently in orbit around the Mars on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, which monitored Curiosity's descent to the Martian surface, and also provided the Mars Express Lander Communications subsystem MELACOM will then support the rover during its operational life on the surface of Mars.

On the sciency front, the Engineer separately reports on how Dr John Bridges from Leicester University will be one of the scientists studying the composition of Martian sediments - check out his blog

. Notes
You can see more Twitter related Curiosity stuff over on Buzzfeed.

And here on NSB, you might be interested in these astronomy related posts:
Interview with Prof Alfonso Aragon-Salamanca
Interview with Sky-at-Night co-presenter Chris Lintott
A short history of Radio Astronomy
A lecture by the 2011 astronomy hightlights
A lecture on galaxy formation

Image Sources : Timeline, Skycrane, First Image, Control, Curiosity parachuting: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.