Saudi Arabia is keen to develop its space infrastructure, says NASA scientist Farouk El-Baz

By : Taha Sakr & Mohamed Samir


Dr. Farouk El-Baz, an Egyptian American space scientist and geologist who worked with NASA on the Moon exploration and the Apollo programme, has expressed his admiration of the Saudi achievements in the investment of space.

Meanwhile, he expressed his disappointment with the Egyptian government’s decision to borrow money to buy wheat. He said that it was a “shame” for a country with a rich agricultural history and potential to depend on foreign loans for its food security.

El-Baz, who is also a Research Professor and Director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, spoke to LEADERS MENA in a virtual interview about the CO2 emissions in the world as well as state-of-the-art means used in scientific research.


Here are the questions for the interview: –


Taha Sakr: Several Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have recently made significant achievements in space exploration. How do you evaluate their experiences and programmes in this field?

Dr. Farouk: I think they are doing very well. They have launched satellites, sent probes to Mars, and participated in international missions. They have also invested in developing their space infrastructure, education, and industry. They have inspired their young people to think beyond their daily lives and pursue their dreams in space. I applaud their efforts and achievements. We (the Egyptians) should have followed their example and started our space programme long ago.


Mohamed Samir: Some people argue that Africa’s CO2 emissions are only a small fraction of the global emissions and that our actions will not make a difference if the major polluters like China and the US do not change their policies. Is there a local solution that we can adopt to adapt to the effects of climate change, such as sea level rise that threatens our agricultural lands? For example, the Netherlands has developed some techniques to prevent flooding. Can we do something similar, or are we doomed by global problems that are beyond our control?

Dr, Farouk: We can contribute to the global solution by using solar energy as our main source of power. We can produce all our energy from the sun and we can even export some of it to Europe from the Western Desert and the Eastern Desert, which receive more solar radiation than any other place in the world. This would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and also generate income for us. To adapt to the effects of sea level rise, we can also implement some local measures, such as building seawalls, dikes, and dams to protect our coastal areas, planting trees and vegetation to prevent soil erosion, and improving our water management and irrigation systems to conserve water and increase crop productivity. We are not helpless in the face of climate change, but we need to act now and cooperate with other countries to find sustainable solutions.



Taha Sakr: How can artificial intelligence help scientific research, especially in predicting natural disasters such as earthquakes?

Dr. Farouk: Artificial intelligence is a powerful tool that can help scientific research in many ways. However, artificial intelligence is not a magic solution that can solve all the problems or answer all the questions. Some phenomena, such as earthquakes, are still very difficult to predict accurately, even with the help of artificial intelligence. This is because earthquakes are caused by many factors that are happening under the earth’s crust, which we do not fully understand or measure. Geologists have some knowledge and theories about what is going on there, but they cannot tell exactly when, where, and how strong an earthquake will occur.


Mohamed Samir: In general, how do you see the impact of artificial intelligence on scientific research?

Dr. Farouk: Artificial intelligence is like computers, and no one thought that computers would have any effect, but they do and they do. So, any new developments will have an impact. That is good, but it cannot be the source, because the source is the human brain, and the leaders of the human brain are the decision-makers who take an idea, say we are going to do something and make people do it.


Mohamed Samir: Back to earthquakes. Ethiopia is located near the Great Rift Valley. In the event of a large earthquake there, would it affect the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam? Is there any danger involved, considering the weight of the lake behind the dam?

Dr. Farouk: Any structure that you build, whether it’s a shop, a big apartment building, a dam, or anything else, is affected by earthquakes. It is built on rock, and vibrations caused by earthquakes can damage the rock. So, there is no doubt that an earthquake would affect the dam. What will happen exactly, only God knows, because it depends on the strength of the dam, the magnitude of the earthquake, and other factors. So, you can’t say I won’t build a dam if there is an earthquake risk. No, you have to go on with your life and be as careful as possible, but go on and live and do your best.


Mohamed Samir: So, in your opinion, in other words, some people are exaggerating the risk of an earthquake affecting the dam and threatening Egypt and Sudan?

Dr. Farouk: Yes, I think some people are overreacting to this possibility. An earthquake would affect Ethiopia first and foremost, and then maybe some parts of Sudan. It would not affect us at all.


Mohamed Samir: Following the earthquake in Turkey, I remember when you debunked that so-called Dutch scientist who claimed that he predicted the earthquake and you proved that it was not possible. But in one of his predictions, he claimed that Egypt will face an earthquake this year. So, some people were wondering: Would the High Dam be endangered in case of, let’s say, 6+ magnitude earthquakes happening here in Egypt, near Aswan? Or was it already built with that in mind?

Dr. Farouk: You can’t build anything anywhere in the world with 100% assurance that there are no earthquakes that can affect it. Nowhere in the world! The power of earthquakes and the resistance of structures to earthquakes vary tremendously. And you cannot say one way or another, but you can say in the last 20 years we had only earthquakes between 3 and 7 magnitude in this area. But nobody can predict anything like this at all. All you can do is live your life. Go ahead and live, build as much as you wish, do everything well, and hope that there is not going to be one big enough to shake you up or damage your buildings. And in the vast majority of cases, as we have seen worldwide, the dams have not been affected by earthquakes.

All the things that were built worldwide had this kind of question, But none of them were destroyed by these earthquakes, but by the fear of potential earthquakes to break them up.


Taha Sakr: Moving to a different point, what are the most important elements that countries seek to obtain from the moon? How do you see China and Russia’s cooperation in space in general and also their cooperation or efforts in exploration on the moon? And what are China’s ambitions in this regard?

Dr. Farouk: There is a lot of interest and competition among the big countries in the world to explore and exploit resources on the moon. China and Russia have announced their plans to cooperate in building a lunar research station, but they are not working together. China is doing everything that Russia did before, but better. Russia was the first to launch a satellite, Sputnik, into orbit, and to land a spacecraft, Luna 2, on the moon. But then America surpassed Russia by sending humans to the moon with the Apollo programme. Now Russia is talking about going back to the moon, but they are not doing much. And China is trying to catch up with America. They are planning to send an astronaut to the moon soon. So they will be the second nation to do so, which is good. All of this competition is good because we will learn from it. The whole world benefits from the technology that is developed and the knowledge that is gained from these efforts. So technically we all learn from their achievements.


Mohamed Samir: Do you think humans will build a colony on Mars within the next 50 years?

Dr. Farouk: I doubt the necessity of that. What they should think about is how to make it easier to travel to Mars, because there may be some resources on Mars that we would like to mine and use. Therefore, the world wants to send people to bring some things from Mars and/or orbit around it and then return to orbit around the moon or Earth. So, they should develop better, cheaper, and safer means of launching and traveling into space. And that’s what I think some people are beginning to think about now.


Mohamed Samir: As for the minerals and materials that can be mined from there, would it make it economically feasible for that kind of operation?

Dr. Farouk: Yes, there are some minerals and materials that can be mined from the moon or Mars that are more abundant or valuable than on Earth. For instance, even on the moon, some places have a higher percentage of titanium in the basalt rocks. On Earth, titanium is found in about 4% of the basalt, but on the moon, it is about 7%, which is nearly double the amount. So maybe we can mine that titanium from the moon and use it for various purposes, such as surgical instruments and aerospace engineering. Titanium is a very useful and expensive metal, so if we can mine it on the moon economically, that would be great. There are other potential resources on the moon or Mars, such as helium-3, rare earth metals, and water ice that could also be worth mining. But the technology and the cost are not there yet. But some people are thinking about it and working on it.


Taha Sakr: Dr. Farouk, the world is facing a big problem because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which affects the global food supply. How can Egypt overcome this challenge in the long run?

Dr. Farouk: Thank you for your question. I think Egypt has made many mistakes in the past 100 years, especially in how it used its agricultural land along the Nile. I am not blaming the Egyptian people, but mainly the Egyptian government. When I was a lecturer at Asyut University in 1958 and 1959, I was saddened to see that all the university buildings, classrooms, playgrounds, and facilities were built on fertile land in Asyut. The same thing happened with all the government buildings, such as the governorate, the municipality, the police headquarters, etc. They all occupied agricultural land that is unique in the world. This land was formed by the Nile over more than 6 million years. We cannot replace it. Egypt is different from any other country in the world. Egypt was a wheat exporter for the Roman Empire, for the Greeks, and Arabia.

It means that we used to produce wheat for everyone around us. And today we have to borrow money from banks to buy wheat from Ukraine so that we can make bread for our people. I think this is a disaster.

The governments of Egypt have failed one after another. The land that was created by the Nile for more than 6 million years is now covered with concrete by all the ignorant government officials, whether they are governors, police officers, army officers, or university professors. Because of this ignorance, we are now dependent on loans to buy wheat from Ukraine. And now that Russia is at war with Ukraine, we cannot find enough banks to lend us money. We have not paid back last year’s loans and we cannot produce enough bread for our poor people. This is a shame and a tragedy for me. The main responsibility for this mess lies with the successive governments of Egypt from the time of the 1952 revolution until today. The rulers of Egypt before and during King Farouk’s reign made it illegal to build anything on agricultural land, but since the revolution of 1952, the countryside has been shrinking.


Taha Sakr: Dr. Farouk, what solutions do you suggest for the current Egyptian government to overcome the problem of food security?

Mohamed Samir: And can I ask you one more thing? Is the damage to the agricultural land irreversible?


Dr. Farouk: Unfortunately, yes. It is irreversible. It is dead. You have replaced the soil with cement, and there is no way to bring it back. The first thing that the Egyptian government should do is to announce that anyone who builds or touches the agricultural land, the soil of the Nile deposits, or the black soil of Egypt, will face severe consequences.

The Egyptian government should warn everyone, especially the state officials, such as the police and the military, not to build on agricultural land. They are the ones who are leading this destruction of more than 6 million years of fertile land. After the construction of the Aswan Dam, no more soil will come to Egypt, no matter what you do.


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