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Volume 27, Number 6November/December 1976

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Space-Age Immigrant

Written by Brainerd S. Bates
Photographed by Katrina Thomas

On July 17, 1975, when spacecraft from America and the Soviet Union joined together 138 miles above the earth, news stories around the world focused on the immensely complex technical feat of docking the modules and the implications of such successful coordination and cooperation by the two rival super powers. But almost completely ignored in press coverage of the Apollo-Soyuz mission was the collateral purpose of those July orbits.

As they circled earth together the American and Russian spacemen were also observing and photographing the scenery below, both for "science" and for the practical benefit of present and future inhabitants of the lands they were passing over. Since this territory included very specifically the Middle East, it was propitious that the mission's Earth Observation and Photography Experiment—as this phase of the project was officially designated—came under the direction of Dr. Farouk El-Baz, a young geology-trained space scientist whose Egyptian origins gave him a more than routine professional interest in the Middle Eastern portion of the Apollo-Soyuz findings.

Though vast distances separate the Nile Delta town of Zagazig and a valley on the moon known as Hadley Rille, both places have played key roles in the life and career of Dr. El-Baz. The town is where he was born 38 years ago; the rille is the spot on the moon which, working in Washington, D.C. in his capacity as supervisor of Lunar Science Planning, El-Baz had the biggest voice in selecting as the target area for a lunar landing by Apollo 15.

The experience which qualified Dr. El-Baz for such responsibility was not wasted after the successful series of moon landings came to an end. During six successive visits to Earth's only natural satellite, teams of astronauts have brought back about 880 pounds of lunar rock and soil and nearly 20,000 photographs. Each item in this treasure trove had to be sorted out, analyzed and catalogued, a gargantuan task which Dr. El-Baz largely coordinated. Craters and other prominent geographical features on the surface of the moon are being named for individuals out of the past who have made notable contributions to human knowledge, particularly along scientific lines. As a member of the lunar-nomenclature committee, El-Baz has been in a position to have a number of achievers from the Arab world memorialized in this manner; among them, Ibn Yunus, al-Battani and al-Biruni, innovative thinkers in the fields of both geography and astronomy; Omar Khayyam, an eminent astronomer as well as a poet, and al-Khwarizmi, the mathematician who invented algebra.

In recent years two events in Farouk El-Baz's life have both accelerated the momentum of his career and significantly altered its course. In January 1973, he became research director of the Smithsonian Institution's Center of Earth and Planetary Studies, now based in Washington's impressive new National Air and Space Museum on the Mall. About the same time plans were being formulated for the international rendezvous in space between the USA and the USSR—the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Every phase of that 1975 joint mission, as it turned out, heavily involved the Smithsonian's Egyptian-born space geologist as well, keeping him more than fully occupied during the preparation stage, while the spacemen were in orbit, and long afterwards—right up until today, in fact. Dr. El-Baz describes his role in the project as "principal investigator for visual observation and photography for the mission, looking at the earth as a whole, its geological features, matters of interest in the fields of oceanography, hydrology, meteorology and everything, really, relative to the earth."

When Farouk El-Baz talks about his work he often characterizes it as looking at the "big picture." And although this term can come out sounding like a cliche, when El-Baz describes his activities, it seems wholly justified. Few other individuals are so well acquainted, to give just one example, with every geographical feature on both sides of the moon. Now the focus of his attention has come down to Earth. He has been scanning this planet both as an entity and as thousands of component parts. He does it by means of countless debriefings of astronauts who have viewed the earth from their unique vantage points and by knowledgeable referral to stacks of aerial photographs they have taken of broader stretches of the earth's surface than have ever been seen before through man-made viewfinders.

As far back as the Gemini space-mission days it was confirmed that while photographs taken by the astronauts are valuable permanent records, they are no substitute for personal sightings while the observers themselves are over the spot. Man's eyes are sensitive to subtle variations of color and he is able to transmit exactly what he sees from his eyes to his brain with great speed. And astronauts can instantly relay such information to interested parties on the ground while they themselves are selecting targets to photograph.

Along-time proponent of the photography - cum - observation school of gathering surface information from outer space, Farouk El-Baz recognizes that astronauts are, after all, primarily superb fliers, with no intrinsic knowledge of geography and geology. To become competent observers and know precisely what and how to photograph ground features earth-bound scientists are curious about, astronauts have to be trained. This was one of the many places in the Apollo-Soyuz mission where Dr. El-Baz fitted in so circumstantially.

Astronauts and their backups assigned to the program started this phase of training a year before the launch date; like every other aspect of the mission, much thought and planning went into this ingredient. It consisted of about 60 hours of formal classroom instruction in such pertinent fields as geology, oceanography, hydrology and meteorology. Dr. El-Baz, a leading designer of the course, was also the principal lecturer. In addition, El-Baz accompanied his astronaut/ students on small planes all around the coastal rim of the United States to point out from low altitudes the kinds of surface features they would likely be encountering while aloft and give the men practice in spotting target areas and describing them.

Besides carrying out the main event of the mission—the hook-up—Apollo-Soyuz astronauts concentrated their attention on two separate components of Earth topography:

  • About one-sixth of the world's land surface is covered by desert. For good and obvious reasons, this substantial chunk of territory has received far less attention from earth scientists than other areas of similar proportions. The Apollo-Soyuz orbits brought back sufficient research material on deserts to keep from 45 to 60 participating scientists around the world, all tied in with Dr. El-Baz in Washington, busy for years to come.

  • It is known by people who specialize in such esoteric matters that the Red Sea is widening, albeit ever so slightly, each year and that the Persian/Arabian Gulf is becoming narrower by a similar amount. Until the Apollo-Soyuz mission took place it had been generally assumed that the entire Arabian Peninsula, which separates these bodies of briny water, was slowly moving in a straightforward easterly direction. Probably not so, newest investigations indicate. The Arabian Peninsula more likely is rotating.

To understand what is happening to the Red Sea and the Gulf it is essential to realize that the entire sand-topped Arabian Peninsula sits on one mammoth unbroken mass of rock, which geologists call a plate, extending into the earth sometimes as much as 50 miles. Because of the earth's heat that far down, this solid plate floats on rock that has a semi-molten consistency. Surrounding the Arabian Peninsula block to the east, north and west is a much bigger plate, resting on what is apparently a far more stable foundation. This enormous block supports such lands we know of as Iran, India, Russia and Europe, and is called the Eurasian Plate.

The smaller plate on which the Arabian Peninsula sits is bounded, east and west, by fractures, linear breaks in the earth's crust. One fracture lies somewhat east of the Gulf, in western Iran. The bigger and more significant fracture, which is still expanding, runs down the middle of the Red Sea.

A specific objective of the Apollo-Soyuz astronauts was to provide research data for studies of two of Earth's major faults. Orbiting over the U.S. West, they targeted in on California's notorious San Andreas Fault. While over the Eastern Hemisphere they were asked to describe via an air-to-ground communications system and to record on film the Arabian Peninsula fracture zone, which geologists now call the Red Sea and Levantine Rift.

As it continues northward, the Red Sea fracture line forks, the western branch to form the Gulf of Suez. The other fracture line, accounting for the presence of the Gulf of Aqaba, continues on in a northerly direction. A glance at any map of lands fronting on the eastern Mediterranean reveals that three lesser bodies of water in the region stand more or less in a row.

The alignment of the Gulf of Aqaba, the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee is no accident," El-Baz points out. "They all fall along that fault," a fact that was known long before the Space Age. What scientists wanted to find out from the Apollo-Soyuz enterprise was where the northernmost extensions of the Levantine Rift zone went.

Dr. El-Baz remembers how exciting it was for him and his colleagues to be hearing from outer space new information about the course of the fault for the first time: "I can trace it all the way to the river ... I don't know the name of the river. I'll have to look it up on a map."

The astronauts had been told to look for anything of significance they saw north of the Sea of Galilee. They traced evidence of the Levantine Rift from that point slightly northwest to a region in the vicinity of the Golan Heights in Syria. At that point the rift splits out, "like a big fan," according to Farouk El-Baz's account, into a number of smaller faults.

Earth scientists recently have been expostulating that the Golan Heights region where the rift forks is a gigantic hinge and that the Arabian Peninsula plate pivots on this axis. As it rotates counterclockwise the huge rock-mass supporting the Peninsula grinds against the even more formidable and apparently more stable Eurasian Plate's outer edge located just inside the western border of Iran. The resulting squeeze is slowly narrowing the Gulf at the rate of nearly 2½ inches a year and making the Red Sea wider by the same amount.

The slow, incessant sideswiping action of the Arabian Peninsula plate against the more inert Eurasian Plate has also been causing rock formations nearer the surface to buckle, a process to which, among others, Iran's Zagros Mountains owe their existence. The perpetual friction of one block against its bigger neighbor to the east is the cause of the disastrous earthquakes in southern Iran which occasionally make world headlines.

The second research area was deserts, and considering that they take up so much room on the face of this earth, it is remarkable that so little is known about them from a scientific point of view. Perhaps this is because many deserts are so immense, with environments that are so inhospitable that they tend to discourage visitors with scientific curiosities. Because skies over them can almost always be counted on to be cloudless, however, their expanses can be taken in with relative ease from a perch in outer space. Preliminary surveys of desert areas from great heights had shown such promise that it was determined to make more refined investigations an objective of the Apollo-Soyuz flight plan.

Dr. El-Baz and his colleagues had long since set general study goals aimed at a better understanding of deserts. They had been wanting to find out more about desert land-forms and how they evolved, the formation of desert erosion patterns and the history of the deposition of desert rocks.

With this basic framework of inquiry Apollo-Soyuz crewmen were asked to help determine whether it is possible to gauge subtle variations in color accurately from space and at what altitude useful acuity begins to fade. They were to contribute answers to such questions as whether color film is a valid supplement to plain visual perception of deserts; what is the best way to map desert territories or to measure the growth of dune fields; just what are the basic dune patterns and how are they formed?

For studies of deserts associated with the Muslim world, stereoscopic photostrips were taken over parts of Mauritania and Algeria in the western Sahara, bands of the eastern Sahara which lie in Chad, Libya and Egypt and, maintaining a northeasterly course, over the Arabian Peninsula from a spot in Yemen straight across to Qatar. Many passes over these regions as well as elsewhere in the world were covered live via color television to give Ground Control instantaneous impressions of what was being viewed from the perspective of outer space. The high-resolution film taken aloft had been specially coated to improve color sensitivity by blocking out the effects of short wavelengths.

Wide-range color photography from space turned out to be an essential adjunct to desert research. The lens of a camera, however, is unable to pick up subtle shade gradients on desert surfaces with the same precision as the human eye. The challenge was to provide some standard which the men in orbit could follow so that their color judgments would be as objective as possible. The solution was as simple as it was ingenious: a doughnut-shaped cardboard wheel with two rows of color swatches around the rim, 27 colors with 27 tone variations of these same colors underneath; 54 shades in all to match every color the astronauts would see in their orbits over arid sands. (The reverse side of the wheel similarly carried every conceivable color found in the oceans.)

While they circled over assigned desert areas spacemen held the color wheel up close and turned it until they had selected a color that most exactly matched the shade of sand on the ground they were looking at. As they wrote down and communicated to the ground the keyed number on the wheel, "14-B . . . 24-A," a uniform record of the color of that particular sector of desert was being built up.

Scientists study and compare desert colors because they give the most reliable clues as to the relative age of zones of arid lands under investigation. The sand on most desert surfaces contains iron compounds which when exposed to the atmosphere slowly oxidize and turn into varying shades of russet. The oldest dune fields are the reddest. Those of more recent origin come in assorted shades of, well, sand—almost white for the youngest, then beige, tones of yellowish tan and brown.

All this is well established, but what is the significance of desert coloration in practical terms? Many large dune fields, nudged along by winds blowing over their crests, are constantly on the move and can overrun highways, railroad tracks, even entire villages which stand in their way. The reddest and therefore the oldest dunes are the most stable. Young, light-colored dunes are apt to be the most restless and to pose the greatest threat to anything in their path. Knowing their location and determining in which direction they are headed through such factors as shapes of individual dunes, local topography and prevailing winds, earth scientists are now in a position to predict danger and recommend steps to minimize it.

When the two Viking spacecraft made contact with Mars last summer (one year after Apollo-Soyuz and just seven years after the first moon landing) the information on dunes obtained in the Earth Observation and Photography Experiment also enabled scientists to make direct comparisons between types of dune fields existing on Earth and those observed on Mars. They have already found some striking similarities.

Farouk El-Baz, an introspective person, perhaps sees some irony in the fact that, growing up as he in a part of the world known for its deserts, he is so pre-occupied these days with the dune fields of the Middle East. There was one hint from his formative years in Egypt of what was to come. Spending his youth in Damietta, where one of the outlets of the Nile flows into the Mediterranean, young Farouk showed early signs of being what today we call "gifted." He attended high school in Cairo where he joined the Boy Scouts and, on field trips to the mountains east of the Egyptian capital, quickly picked up an affinity for geology.

That absorption was to remain. El-Baz graduated from Cairo's Ain Shams University at age 20 with a B.S. in Geology and took a teaching job at the University of Assiut. But he wanted to broaden his academic horizons and landed on a government list of those eligible for a scholarship abroad.

The first bidder for Farouk's talents was Russia, which after family consultation and much thought was turned down. Then, in 1959 came an offer of financial aid for higher education from the United States. With El-Baz's background in geology, his graduate studies were placed under the supervision of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which selected the famed Missouri School of Mines at Rolla as the institution at which the young Egyptian visitor would earn his master's degree in economic geology. Later Farouk divided his studies toward a doctorate between the University of Missouri and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The second, middle year of that strenuous program spent at M.I.T. marked an important milestone outside of any classroom or laboratory. While studying in the Bay State he met the girl who is now his wife, Catherine O'Leary, of Swampscott, north of Boston. At home in Arlington, Virginia, now are four attractive young daughters whose names—Monira, Soraya, Karima and Fairouz—as well as their dark good looks distinctly favor their Egyptian heritage over their Irish background from the North Shore of eastern Massachusetts, of which they are equally proud.

In 1964, the era of the Gemini space program, the brand-new Ph.D. received an offer of a teaching post from the University of Heidelberg, largely through the intercession of Dr. G. C. Amstutz, his doctorate program advisor. In Heidelberg, Dr. Paul Ramdohr, a world authority on meteorites, was at the time investigating the presence of minerals in meteorites and took the young geology teacher from overseas as a special student. Dr. El-Baz was being given another nudge in the direction of space and the moon.

A slight detour intervened in the form of a year spent back in Egypt in offshore oil exploration before El-Baz found himself back on track. The line led him straight to Washington and employment with Bellcomm, Inc., a small firm contracted by the U.S. Government to do planning and give technical support for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It would be another two years before the first manned lunar landing, but Bellcomm already had thousands of photographs taken in orbit of the moon's surface. Through the vision of a geologist. Dr. El-Baz examined each of these prints, and when the time came to recommend an appropriate place for Apollo astronauts to put down on the lunar surface he was ready.

As the Apollo program progressed through its projected series of human orbits of the moon and the landings. Dr. El-Baz became mentor to the participants, instructing lunar-bound astronauts on every aspect of the geology and geography of the moon. Training sessions on orbital science and photography went on during odd moments the astronauts could spare almost until the moment of blast-off. During his six-year association with NASA's on-the-scene investigation of the moon Farouk El-Baz moved from the post of geologist in Bellcomm's Lunar Exploration Department to supervisor successively of Lunar Science Planning and Lunar Science Operations to supervisor of Lunar Exploration for Bell Telephone Laboratories in Washington. In 1970, in the middle of the period of his total involvement with the moon, El-Baz took time out to become a U.S. citizen.

From 1960, when he left Egypt for the United States to begin his higher education, it was almost six years before Farouk El-Baz returned to his home country, as a fully qualified oil geologist. Since then, in his capacity as space scientist. Dr. El-Baz has been renewing his ties with the Middle East with ever-more-frequent journeys. Under U.S. Information Service sponsorship he has escorted Apollo astronauts on tours to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Egypt. His link with Saudi Arabia has grown especially close since the appointment of Dr. Muhammad Abdu Yamani (no kin to the present Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Affairs), a professional geologist and personal friend, as Minister of Information.

In May 1974. Dr. El-Baz had an audience with His Majesty King Faisal in Riyadh, during which the late monarch gave his enthusiastic support for continued studies of the Arabian Desert from space. El-Baz returned to the Saudi Arabian capital in March 1976 to attend the Islamic Conference on Science - and Technology. The five-day parley, held under the auspices of Riyadh University and opened by His Majesty King Khalid, brought together 160 distinguished scientists, educators and engineers from all over the Muslim world. While there Dr. El-Baz met with Amir Fah'd, the Crown Prince, who spoke of his desire to establish a scientific research institution in Saudi Arabia. In Dr. El-Baz's opinion, the Arabian Peninsula is not only an ideal desert laboratory, but also offers optimum conditions for a whole spectrum of solar energy studies.

In the 18 years since leaving his Cairo classrooms Farouk El-Baz has accomplished more than many gifted men and women have succeeded in doing in long lifetimes and attained a reputation in his field of the highest order. Conceding that the West has given him a great deal of knowledge in the space-science field, El-Baz talks feelingly about the debt he is convinced he owes to the other side of the world: "I have not forgotten my link with the Arab world, and I cannot. I came from there. I continually ask myself how I can contribute to scientific development there. And I believe one of the best ways I can pay back some of the knowledge I have gained is to use it, particularly for those who need it most."

Brainerd S. Bates, formerly Aramco's chief writer on petroleum in Dhahran, now free-lances from West Virginia.

All in a Family

Farouk is the fourth in line of nine talented El-Baz brothers and sisters. The eldest, Muhammad, is a general in the Egyptian Army. Next is sister Dr. Osama El-Baz, holder of a doctorate in International Relations from Harvard Law School, who works with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in Cairo. Brother Esam is a colonel in the artillery branch of the Egyptian military and sister Laila, a Home Economics major in college, is married to a military judge. Another sister, Soraya, teaches high-school chemistry in Riyadh, where her husband is employed by the Public Works Administration in the Saudi Arabian Government. Farouk's youngest married sister, Safa, is a medical doctor now in residency in New York City. Hazim, a graduate in aeronautical engineering, is following brother Farouk's footsteps by seeking his master's at the Missouri School of Mines. And the youngest, Nabil, plans a career in business administration when he completes his required military service.

The father of this brood of achievers was a "relatively poor" teacher of religion and Arabic, undogmatic but fiercely ambitious for his children, who gave each of the older ones unstinting aid in their homework. It was not long before the older children, as is the custom in Arab families, were tutoring the younger ones and taking enormous pride in their scholastic achievements. Farouk remembers well how his father, a graduate of al-Azhar University and a very devout man, would often say, "I wish that God will help me get at least one of my boys through high school."

Farouk's mother married in her early teens. With her husband's help she taught herself the rudiments of reading and writing after her older children were half grown. But what the senior Mrs. El-Baz still lacks in formal education she more than compensates for, according to son Farouk, with "fantastic common sense and native intelligence."

In 1972, after repeated entreaties from those of her children living in the West, and by then a widow with no travel experience—even on a bus—the mother flew from Cairo to visit her U.S. daughter and two sons. Special reason for her second trip to the United States, in 1975, was to witness the Apollo-Soyuz launch at the Kennedy Space Center. At the launch site this visitor from far-off Nile country was accorded well-deserved treatment as a V.I.P.

This article appeared on pages 18-25 of the November/December 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1976 images.