Next week will mark 51 years since the iconic Apollo 11 mission touched down on the Moon on July 20, 1969, which saw Armstrong jump off the lunar lander Eagle six hours later to deliver his “one small step” speech to the millions watching anxiously back on Earth. Joined by Aldrin just minutes later, the pair spent two-and-a-quarter hours exploring what would become Tranquility Base, collecting more than 20kg of rock samples before they buried the US flag into the surface to signify the end of the Space Race. But, one of the scientists who was in Mission Control that day – Professor Farouk El-Baz – revealed how he spent more than a year working with the astronauts on another very important task they had to complete, which would be crucial for the success of future space missions.
Speaking to Express.co.uk exclusively, the 82-year-old – who was the leading geologist on the Apollo programme and in charge of the selection of the landing site – revealed how he trained Armstrong and Aldrin to take photos of “targets of opportunity” outlined by NASA.
He said: “The science [work with Armstrong and Aldrin] was once every week or two weeks and we were given an hour because they had a very full schedule with testing, trying simulations, etc.
“When we met with them, we had very specific topics, we had very specific time and we said what we wanted to tell them.
“We would show them maps where we wanted them to take photographs and NASA called these ‘targets of opportunity’ – the places we needed them to photograph because they were flying over places that were crucial for the missions after.
Next week will mark 51 years since Apollo 11
The Apollo 11 crew in 1969
“So there was quite a bit of interesting photography of the Moon. We had these photographic sites, we had to impress upon them the importance of when to look at them to get the right shadow [to take a good photo].
“NASA engineers called these targets of opportunity, meaning they didn’t have to do it, but if they had an opportunity, they should go ahead and do it.”
Professor El-Baz recalled a fond memory of Armstrong, who made a dash just before he was supposed to leave the lunar surface to snap one of these targets.
He added: “They did very well, actually. Neil Armstrong, in particular, was very meticulous about it, we were always impressed.
“The very last thing that he did – after the mission was done and they collected all the material and started putting it back into the spacecraft and Buzz Aldrin started driving – was remember something important.
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Farouk El-Baz gave the astronauts a mission
“The geologists had told him that we needed to know the thickness of the soil layer of the surface of the Moon.
“You can only see this if you look at the crater and photograph the rim and see how far you have to go down before you see solid rock.
“Anything on top of the solid rock would be the soil layer.”
Professor El-Baz explained why the photographs were crucial at the time, and still could be pivotal in future space missions.
He continued: “Neil remembered that before he finished and before he got into the spacecraft to leave, he ran – very fast – west towards a crater he saw from the distance that would be good to do this with.
“He stood on one side, looked at it, took the picture, turned around and ran back – but it was a fabulous picture and very important for us.
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The astronauts planted the US flag on the Moon
“From day one, we made absolutely certain that all of the photography of the Moon would be available to the general public and worldwide.
“We hoped anyone would look at the picture and find something we missed and publish it, and it could benefit us.”
At just 31 years old, Professor El-Baz became the secretary of the Lunar Landing Site Selection Committee for the Apollo programme.
But, at the heart of this huge American project, he was very far from home.
Born in January 1938 in the Nile Delta town of Zagazig, his first years of primary school were in Damietta, an Egyptian port city north of the nation’s capital, Cairo.
It was here that his love of science and the natural world was born from the colourful rocks of Mokattam Mountain.
Neil Armstrong snapped this photo of Buzz Aldrin
He later moved to Cairo with his family to study geology, chemistry, biology and mathematics, graduating with a bachelor of science in 1958.
Moving to the US, he gained a Masters degree followed by a PhD in geology, but a return to Egypt would see him try and fail to secure a position there.
He returned to the US in 1967 and interviewed successfully for Bellcomm, which provided engineering support to NASA’s headquarters, soon working his way into the Apollo programme.
During his candid interview with Express.co.uk, he recalled the unique position he held in the early days as a non-US scientist and particularly an Egyptian – whose President at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser – had forged ties with the Soviet Union.
He also recalled a fascinating, yet terrifying story from the mission that would inevitably lead to the astronauts landing at the wrong zone.