As space travel becomes more commercial, fifty years after the successful Apollo 11 landing, you might just decide to take a trip to the moon for your next vacation. But how will you decide where to park your lunar lander? The moon has a surface area of 14,658,000 miles, and, unlike your local shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving, the moon is unoccupied, so you can take your pick. What will your criteria be? At the mall, you might pick near the entrance of your favorite store, but what about the moon? Well, in 1967, a young geologist, who later spent many years at the Smithsonian, had to answer that question – where should astronauts park the first lunar lander?
Dr. Farouk El-Baz studied geology in his native Egypt, and then earned a PhD from the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy in the U.S. Like many new graduates, his intial job search was unsuccessful. But when he saw an unusual job ad in Physics Today for a geologist to work for Bellcomm, a research lab collaborating on the NASA Apollo program, his luck changed.
Apollo managers had reasoned that a desert surface on the earth was the planetary surface most similar to the moon. Therefore, El-Baz’s specialty in desert geology made him the ideal fit. Belcomm quickly hired him and he became involved in pinpointing where the first lunar lander should touch down.
El-Baz studied thousands of lunar photographs that NASA had taken, sorting the images by the type of rock that was visible. He also looked for safe sites where the astronauts could land and travel around a bit.
In addition, NASA wanted to sample as many lunar rocks as possible, and El-Baz quickly became the expert on lunar rock types and locations, narrowing the field to sixteen types. Ultimately the choice was the Sea of Tranquitity or Mare Tranquillitatis. Not only did El-Baz suggest landing sites, but he also taught the astronauts geology, so they could better describe what they were seeing on their flights.
When the Apollo program ended, El-Baz came to the Smithsonian as the founding director of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (CEPS) at the National Air and Space Museum. It became a world-class research center that focuses on geologic processes that have shaped the surfaces of rocky bodies in the solar system, including the Earth. CEPS staff are actively involved in most of NASA’s current planetary missions. As a NASA Regional Planetary Image Facility, CEPS also houses an extensive collection of images of the planets and their satellites.
El-Baz took an unusual path, from Egyptian deserts to the planetary geology expert at NASA, and helped atronauts park on the moon.