Apollo scientist stresses value of S&T degree

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On May 15, 2018

Dr. Farouk El-Baz, a geologist who played a leading role during NASA’s Apollo space program in the 1960s, assured graduates that their degrees from Missouri S&T have prepared them for whatever they will encounter in their professional lives.

El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing and research professor at Boston University, spoke during commencement ceremonies at Missouri S&T on Saturday, May 12. El-Baz earned master of science and Ph.D. degrees in geology and geophysics from Missouri S&T.

“I am happy to say that every single course I took had an effect on my career,” El-Baz said. As an example, he cited a project in a graduate-level tectonics course in geology that required him to study a photo of the moon and write a report about its tectonics. He got an A on the paper but learned after joining NASA’s Apollo program that his interpretations were wrong.

“However, Professor (Paul) Proctor had taught me how to gain information from a single photograph,” El-Baz said. “That experience helped me to become secretary of the lunar landing site selection committee and trainer of all Apollo astronauts in visual observations and photography.

“The lesson here is that the education you received at S&T has prepared you for whatever you encounter in your future professional life,” El-Baz said. “I can assure you that, from my experiences, the S&T education is second to none.”

El-Baz compared his studies at S&T with time spent at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, he took a full course load, dated his future wife, was heavily involved in student organizations and hosted a weekly Arabic radio variety show – but still earned mostly A’s, something that El-Baz said rarely happened at S&T.

“Be conscious of the great education you received here,” he said. “You should realize that the degree you acquire today basically means only one thing, and that is: until today you required someone to take you by the hand and teach you. But from this day forward, you can begin to teach yourself.”

El-Baz, who also holds a bachelor’s degree from Ain Shams University, conducted graduate research at Asyut University in Egypt. He later taught at Germany’s Heidelberg University, then participated in oil exploration in the Gulf of Suez.

In 1967, El-Baz was appointed by NASA as secretary of lunar landing site selection and chairman of astronaut training in orbital observations and photography. His role was chronicled by Tom Hanks in the TV series From the Earth to the Moon, in a segment titled: “The Brain of Farouk El-Baz.” In addition, the name El-Baz was immortalized on a shuttlecraft in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

After the Apollo Program ended, he joined the Smithsonian Institution to establish and direct the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, and to plan exhibits of the National Air and Space Museum. He then joined Itek Optical Systems as vice president for science and technology.

In 1986, he joined Boston University to establish and direct the Center for Remote Sensing. He developed methodologies for applying space-born data to scientific research efforts in geology, geography and archaeology. His work resulted in the location of groundwater resources in the Western Desert of Egypt, the Rajasthan of India, in Darfur of northwestern Sudan, the Sultanate of Oman, the Northern United Arab Emirates and Republic of Chad.

A member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), El-Baz serves on the editorial boards of several international professional journals. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Astronomical Society in London and the Explorers Club in New York.

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4 thoughts on “Apollo scientist stresses value of S&T degree”

  • Farouk El-Baz is one of the most recognized scientists in the world, and its no accident. He is essentially the geologist equivalent of brain surgeon Ben Carson: a man who never made any excuses for himself, and excelled at whatever he was assigned to do. His application to NASA was simply a short-term means of returning to the USA after his research interests were squashed by his department chair in Egypt.
    That fateful decision to bid goodbye to his native country was their loss and our gain. At NASA he applied himself to educate himself about the moon, and within a few years he became the world’s expert on the Moon, and one of the key figures in planning all of the lunar explorations undertaken by NASA. He did most of this on his own initiative, sorting through myriads of details on thousands of aerial photos taken of the moon’s surface!
    He is one of the greatest examples of what can happen when someone possesses the initiative to strive for excellence, without worrying about who gets the credit (prestige) or how much is the pay….all of Missouri S&T’s graduate students should study this man’s career, because his success in several fields of study are no accident; they are the result of diligent and purposed effort. His admonition that students “will use every bit of information they learned at the university at some time in their careers” is spot-on! The more diverse your training is, the bigger your “problem solving toolbox” will become. Don’t be afraid of delving into new challenges. It’s people who rise to the challenges that change the world for the better.

  • Joel Brand says:

    What an impressive, inspiring career! It is interesting to hear his reflections on learning. And, great job capturing the story, Helen!

  • James DeVaney says:

    That is a solid and very re-affirming talk from Dr. El-Baz. I have to say I wondered about the lumps I took as an AE student back in my time at Rolla but I know they definitely prepared me for my future and that my degree meant something. James D., AE 91

  • Gregory Goldbogen says:

    Dr. El-Baz was my instructor in Micro-paleontology when I was a student at MSM 1961-1967. He was a graduate assistant at the time. I was unsure at the time whether to continue studying Geollogy at Rolla, but Dr. El-Baz was instrumental in inspiring me to stay. I owe him a great deal of gratitude!