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From the Moon and Beyond

January 2006
From the Moon and Beyond

When it comes to celestial views of planet Earth, Dr. Kamlesh Lulla has a rare front row seat. As the chief scientist for Earth Observation at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Lulla is credited as the person who has something to do with many of the breakthrough photos of our planet as observed from space. He and his group at JSC are responsible for training astronauts and cosmonauts in the scientific observation of Earth's environmental, geological, oceanographic and meteorological phenomena.

While much of the sensation and drama around space missions is usually hogged by man's curiosity about distant planets, Lulla enjoys, more than likely, the most vantage of position when it comes to looking at Earth from outside in. "One of NASA's missions is to understand and protect our home planet, and my job directly ties to that," he has been quoted. "Space photography is an important tool in our mission to improve life on Earth. For example, photographs taken by astronauts, in tandem with satellite imagery, have enabled us to conduct research on how to monitor smoke over the Amazon region, and detect how it affects regional climate patterns and the lives of the people who live there."

The holder of two doctorates, Lulla has earned many laurels for his expertise and work in Earth observation. In a long and distinguished career, he has received the Exceptional Achievement Medal for Earth Remote Sensing from NASA. Other milestones Houston Federal Executive Board's Federal Scientist of the Year Award, and the Space Remote Sensing Medal from the Association of American Geographers.

Dr. Lulla is also responsible for directing NASA's Astronauts and Russian Cosmonauts in Earth Observation Sciences. He directs the Earth science data collection and database development activities. Before joining NASA in 1988, he served as a senior professor and director of Space Remote Sensing Research Center at Indiana State University, where he received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1991.

Currently the chairman of the technical committee of the Houston section of AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), he also serves as an adjunct professor at various universities. Lulla upholds his Indian tradition and can converse fluently in seven major Indian languages.

Dr Swamy Mruthinti, a professor of biology at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton has known Lulla since 1975, from their time together at M.S. University, Baroda. "From India to Indiana he brought a keen sense of innovativeness and established himself as a leading authority in remote sensing and Earth observation," comments Mruthinti.

When Lulla was recently invited for a talk at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton about the latest developments at NASA, he also spoke to Khabar.

What are the latest developments at the Johnson Space Center?

The President announced a new "Vision for Space Exploration" for sending humans to the moon and then to Mars. At Johnson Space Center we are in the process of implementing this vision.

If this initiative materializes what will your role be in it?

The goal of the mission will be to first go back and finish the international space station, and from there on to make new vehicles that will take us to the moon. My particular role would be in the International Space Station, which is currently an orbiting research laboratory to support Earth observation and imagery analysis from that platform. I have been doing that for several years, and am the chief scientist there. That role will continue. Further, my role including that of several other scientists, would be to help assist in developing plans to see what kind of science we can engage in once we are on the lunar surface. So it would be primarily that kind of strategic planning and working on advisory boards. The mission calls for an extended stay by astronauts on the lunar surface for exploration purposes and to conduct long duration scientific studies to see how we can live and work on another planetary body.

In the face or war, terrorism and a mounting deficit, critics may argue that committing a sizeable chunk of the national budget to space exploration may not be the most prudent priority. What is your opinion?

My personal view, not that as a NASA official, is also the view of many scientists who are supporting the space program, and it is that while there is a understandable discussion about all these other activities that are going on in the nation's history at any time, exploration and generating and creating new knowledge is something that needs to continue because that is something that the human mind and spirit will never give up. Here is an important comparison that one scientist had made; we have a lot of things going on in many parts of the world, but we do not stop research on cancer, we do not stop medical research, or that in areas such as agriculture etc. In other words there are certain functions of knowledge generation, including space exploration, that will benefit mankind in general. I can understand that in some years you have a reduced budget and in other years you may have more budget. Nonetheless, I don't think there is any way or reason to stop this. Ultimately people realize that what NASA does is not only going to benefit the American taxpayer but also anyone who uses our technology throughout the world. In my view, it is not a question of competing priorities, it is a question of maybe allocating more or less resources as per the times. And American taxpayers are very educated and smart; they understand what NASA's contribution is.

Given your work in the observation and study of the Earth can you comment on global warming?

While this has recently become quite controversial, global warming is not a new concept. The first paper on it was published back in the 1800s. It has been studied by scientists for a long time. At NASA, our role is to make objective observations using space based satellites and then those observations are taken by other scientists to come up with conclusions about what's happening, for example, with the rising temperatures of glaciers and the melting of ice. My personal opinion is that we need to understand this complex issue in more detail. It is only now, for the first time in the history of Earth observation, that we have all the needed assets in place?such as satellite observations and powerful modeling and computing resources. We are at the threshold of understanding this issue in a far better way than we did in the past. What is known for sure as a result is that, yes, there has been a rise in global temperatures over the last several decades. That much is proven. Having said that, the question is, is it man made or natural? Or is it a combination of both? This is what we don't know. That's where we need to understand the complexities of global warming and how it affects climate. Because many a times in the geological history of our planet there have been warming and cooling phases. So to peg how much of this [current global warming] is due to human activity and how much of it is a natural rhythm of broad geological cycles, is unclear. That's where I don't think scientists have concrete answers. There is no clear causal relationship that can be ascertained. Though, in all this one also has to consider that in the past geological cycles, we haven't had the kind of human civilizations we do now, with the population that we have now.

How about deforestation? Is that a concern?

That has been a very interesting assessment for the last twenty years. There are many articles and magazines that reported in the ‘80s & ‘90s about the threat of deforestation. The interesting thing to realizes is that it is not that simple. The assessment is quite complex. In many regions of the world, we see that the land cover has been altered at a minimal level. Then there are regions that scientists call hot spots. These are critical zones where deforestation is to the extent that it is harming the ecosystem. But on the other hand, there are zones where deforestation has reversed, and we have more forested area then before. So, in answer to the question of deforestation, I would say that the planet's forests and vegetation are very resilient. There are hot spots that we need to monitor so that they don't further degrade. But in many Western countries, there are more forest now then there were twenty years ago. The picture is quite hopeful in my view.

Can you briefly tell us about your journey to NASA?

I was inspired to think about space research after the historic Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. I completed two Ph.D.s; one in Space Remote Sensing and one in Earth Environmental Sciences. I was a professor at universities in India and the U.S. before joining NASA. I've been with it for almost 20 years and have been involved in very exciting research and operational projects in the space shuttle and international space station programs.

What does it take to rise to the top at NASA?

Three things: passion for space research, the highest credentials possible, and hard work! One should also have a good ability to solve problems. NASA hires not only scientists but they also look for graduates and doctorates from all majors. They have many departments that they hire for.


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