Research scientists continue to add to our understanding of Earth systems, thanks to the global Earth observation capacity. Waleed Abdalati, associate professor of Geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder, director of the Earth Science & Observation Center, a Fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, and former NASA Chief Scientist, has a perspective that encompasses the capacity, coming capabilities, and ongoing challenges. Sensors & Systems (S&S) special correspondent Matteo Luccio spoke with Abdalati about the inspiration that is provided through Earth observation, the need to balance satellite-based sensors with in-situ observations, as well as his research work studying ice and climate change.
S&S: Who or what inspired you to go into science? Why aerospace engineering science?
Abdalati: The Apollo program inspired me, from the time I was a young kid. I used to pretend that I was one of the Apollo 11 astronauts. There was just a magic, an inspiration in there that stayed with me through grade school, into college, and onward. When Apollo 16 or 17 went up, I was in the second grade and I remember telling my teacher, “I don’t understand. The rocket is moving really fast and the moon is moving really fast and so you have to aim the rocket someplace where the moon isn’t, so that they get there at the same time.”
That was my second grade mind. “The moon has to be there by the time the rocket gets there. How do they do that?” I asked. She said, “They use all kinds of math to figure it out.” I remember thinking, “Math… I am going to learn some math!” I thought it was really cool. From that moment on, I was always fascinated by trajectories, by the movement of objects, orbital mechanics, and that kind of stuff. So, it really was the Apollo era that planted the seeds that stayed with me throughout my career.
S&S: Hopefully, the Curiosity mission will do the same for another generation.
Abdalati: I sure hope so! There’s a real magic to it.