BEIRUT: Growing up in the small village of Riyaq in the Bekaa Valley, Charles Elachi didn’t know exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. But he did know he wanted to explore.
Today, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) center in Pasadena, California, is preparing to oversee the agency’s rover landing on Mars.
On Aug. 5, at 10:30 p.m. California time (8:30 a.m. on Aug. 6 in Lebanon), Curiosity, a rover the size of a large car, will reach the red planet following a seven-month journey. It will spend around two years on Mars, looking for organic material conducive to sustaining human life – either in the past or in the future.
The mission follows similar JPL Mars missions by Spirit, which was active between 2004 and 2010, and Opportunity, which became active in 2004 and remains operational. Curiosity, which is about twice as long and five times as heavy as the other two rovers, will attempt a more accurate landing. Nearly daily online updates of the rover’s journey to Mars have been providing details of course adjustments, a welcome move for Elachi, who has long advocated making the JPL’s work more accessible to the public.
Elachi’s journey to NASA began when he was a young student in Lebanon, where he was inspired by teachers who taught science in an interesting and easy-to-grasp manner, and by tales of his seafaring ancestors, the Phoenicians, who were eager to explore the world beyond their shores and behind the next hill.
“I’ve always been fascinated by exploration,” Elachi recalls, adding that in high school it helped that his teachers “made science fun.”
After graduating from high school in Lebanon, he went on to study physics at the University of Grenoble in France, and later attained an M.A. and a doctorate in electrical sciences from the California Institute of Technology. That is also where he joined the JPL, first in a part-time capacity while still a student, then full time upon graduation.
Since then, he has led teams working on a number of research and flight projects sponsored by NASA, including the Shuttle Imaging Radar series and the Cassini Titan Radar. Upcoming JPL projects include sending a spacecraft to Jupiter, as well as orbiting the moon, Saturn and Nesta, one of the largest asteroids.
In a recent project, NASA inaugurated an x-ray telescope that takes pictures of black holes and the area around them. Ten years from now, the telescope should be able to take pictures of planets and stars.
Elachi now wants to show members of younger generations that science can be fun, accessible and relevant to their daily lives.
He likes to remind people that “Every time you use your cellphone, you’re using technology that was developed at the JPL 30 years ago to communicate with spacecraft through satellite. And every time you use a GPS receiver, you’re using technology used to locate spacecraft.”
He also notes that robotic arms sometimes used in medical surgeries were developed by the JPL for the arms of rovers.
In addition to exploring space, Elachi’s career at NASA has led to his involvement in Earth-bound exploration missions, such as studying the effects of global warming on oceans. And his drive to develop futuristic technology has – somewhat ironically – taken him to archaeological digs in Oman and Egypt, where, with the help of technology developed by NASA, he excavated old drainage channels which will help scientists interpret pictures of planets.
Elachi, who is on the board of trustees at Lebanese American University, helps LAU recruit science professors, and says he would like to see the subject taught to younger students in a way that engages them.
Every summer, the JPL hosts 500 students, he says, “to learn about how fun science is.”
The prolific scientist and explorer has received countless honors and awards. In 1989, Asteroid 1982 SU was renamed 4116 Elachi, and in 2006 he was awarded the National Order of the Cedars (with the rank of “Officer”) by his native Lebanon. Last year, he received the James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award, the highest honor awarded by the Space Foundation, which aims to demonstrate how space exploration improves life on earth.
His message to Lebanon and the rest of the world is that science is essential for societies to improve and develop.
“We live in a highly technical society,” he observes. “The countries that invest in science and technology will thrive in the future. The technically educated will thrive.”
Elachi expects that space tourism will begin in the next five to seven years, and that ordinary people will be able to visit the edge of space within two years. He predicts that tourism to other planets will be possible in 30 years – a sign not only of society’s advancement in the realm of science, but of humankind’s innate desire to explore the world beyond Earth.