Together We Came: Farouk El-Baz (Arab American Institute)

Arab American Insititute

June 11, 2014

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Farouk El-Baz was born in the Nile Delta village of Zagazig, Egypt in 1938. At the early age of twenty, El-Baz completed dual degrees in chemistry and geology from Ain Shams University in Cairo. El-Baz then immigrated to the United States where he spent time conducting extensive research at the highly esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He went on to earn a Masters of Science and a PhD in geology at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

After holding brief teaching positions in Egypt and Germany, El-Baz joined NASA’s Apollo Program in 1967. Quickly rising in leadership, he served as the Secretary of the Landing Site Selection Committee, Principal Investigator of Visual Observations and Photography, and Chairman of the Astronaut Training Group of the Apollo Photo Team. In these positions, it was often El-Baz’s responsibility to instruct the astronauts and the press, and his teaching abilities were praised all around. The press often looked to El-Baz to simplify scientific jargon into easily understandable statements that could be used in the media.

When the astronauts were circling the moon for the first time during Apollo Mission 15, Command Module Pilot Alfred Worden was quoted as saying, “After the King’s training, I feel like I’ve been here before.” The “King” he was referring to was none other than Egyptian American scientist Dr. Farouk El-Baz. In addition to his professional acclaim, his extraordinary contributions to the American space program would go on to earn him recognition in popular culture with the appearance of a shuttle craft named the “El-Baz” in the famed Star Trek television show to a segment on Tom Hanks’ series for HBO entitled, “The Brain of Farouk El-Baz.”

After he became an American citizen in 1970 and the Apollo missions came to a close in 1972, El-Baz turned his expertise from the desert of the moon to deserts closer to home. He conducted research on the Sahara, the Arabian Peninsula, and coordinated the first visit by American scientists to the deserts of northwestern China. His research dispelled the common held notion that deserts were man-made, opening up new avenues of research and scientific practice.

His research attracted the attention of President Anwar Sadat of El-Baz’s homeland, Egypt, and he was appointed as the President’s Science Advisor where he researched select desert tracts that could be reclaimed for agriculture and resources. His developments and advances continue to benefit the people of Egypt today, and earned him the honor of being named to Egypt’s Order of Merit – First Class.

El-Baz returned to the United States and took a position at Boston University. There, he continued his research using remote sensing space technology, applying it to geology, archaeology, and geography. His direction has made Boston University the leader in environmental application for remote sensing technology. This groundbreaking application was used by El-Baz and his team to locate ground water in the world’s driest regions. His discoveries were first applied in Egypt and then in the Darfur region of Sudan. Because much of the conflict in Darfur was based in water shortages, El-Baz’s research has been used by the United Nations to explore for wells.

Dr. El Baz has received many honorary degrees and awards, including NASA’s Apollo Achievement Award. As a testament to his ingenuity and expertise, nearly every distinction or award in the field of remote sensing is named after El-Baz. He has been travelling frequently to Egypt in recent years, taking an interest in the education system and new political reality there. An early member of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, El-Baz commented regularly on Egypt’s political situation for U.S. news syndicates. El-Baz has opened schools and started scholarships bearing his name in Egypt and continually encourages bright young Egyptians to pursue education.

At the age of 76, El-Baz continues to teach and conduct research in the United States. The author of many books focused on space imaging and geology, a chairman on dozens of committees, and a member of scientific, cultural, and political organizations throughout the world, El-Baz is a world renowned Arab American whose work has and continues to attract thousands of scientific scholars and has impacted countries all over the globe.