Mar 8, 2001

Science Out of Africa




Not all NASA adventures happen in space. In this story a scientist describes his down-to-Earth encounters with poisonous snakes, charging elephants and more ... as he tested a high-flying satellite from the wilds of Africa.


Marshall Space Flight Center


(requires RealPlayer)


March 9, 2001 -- You're awake at 5 a.m. After dressing, you wait for the game guard to show up with his .50-caliber elephant rifle. He's going to escort you from the gate in the electrified fence -- the one that keeps the lions out at night -- to your waiting truck. 


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As you drive along on the "wrong" side of the road, avoiding crater-like pot holes and reckless cab drivers, you spot a few zebras crossing the road ahead. To keep a safe distance you slow down -- but not for long. A few kilometers later, you're frantically accelerating to outrun a charging elephant.

Talk about rush hour traffic!

Above: Zebras in Africa always have the right of way! Despite their horse-like appearance, zebras are aggressive, foul-tempered animals that are best kept at a respectful distance. Photo by Mark Helmlinger.

When you finally arrive at work (50 miles and a couple of detours later) you're careful to lock the truck. That way baboons can't get inside and tear things up.

There's not much time to lose now. The instruments have to be ready before 10:30 a.m. That's when the satellite passes overhead. 

Despite a close encounter with a poisonous snake, you have everything assembled and ready to go half an hour early.

Then, one of the scientists from the airfield radios to say the reconnaissance planes are grounded -- bad weather strikes again. They've canceled today's mission. Oh well, there's always tomorrow! Another day, another adventure for NASA researcher Mark Helmlinger.


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Above: Both of these photos were taken by Mark Helmlinger during his field research in Africa. The left image was taken while accelerating in reverse to escape the bull elephant's mock charge. Did you notice the snake in the image on the right? Mark didn't notice this poisonous snake either until a colleague pointed it out -- after Mark's head had passed within inches of the snake! Photos by Mark Helmlinger.

Mark, who works for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is one of hundreds of researchers involved in SAFARI 2000, an international campaign to study the impact of human activities on southern Africa's unusually self-contained environment. Using instruments on the ground, on airplanes, and on satellites, the scientists hope to understand how gases released into the atmosphere by industrial and biological sources affect phenomena ranging from regional crop productivity to global climate change.

But first, people like Mark must go out in the field to gather the data.




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"You learn really quickly the extraordinary means you have to go through to get the job done," Mark said.

Coping with the dangers of African wildlife kept Mark on his toes. His team conducted some of their experiments at an instrument tower in Krugar National Park in South Africa. The park offered favorable conditions for the measurements, but working there meant dealing with the ever-present threat of lions.

"The lions own the place," Mark said. "You don't get out of your car at all, and you don't go out at night."

"When I went out to the tower site, I had to park the car some distance away so that the instruments were not measuring the car. I had to hire a game guard -- a big guy with a big gun -- and his job was to keep his eyes open and scare off any big game."

Even when traveling outside of wildlife preserves, Mark and his colleagues would pitch their tents on top of their truck just to be safe.


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"The tents are on top so that lions don't get you when you go camping across the countryside," he said. "They won't climb the ladders. Lions don't like to climb things, and they haven't figured out yet that tents have yummy things inside."

With so many lions about, one thing you don't want to run short of is gasoline.

"Unleaded gas is not very common in that part of the world," he recalled, "and the rental company rented me a truck that ran only on unleaded gasoline. Boy, was that a pain! I had to take some empty 55-gallon drums from the airstrip [all the way] to a gas station 100 kilometers away, fill them all up, and bring them back so I could have my own fuel dump."

Far from home "you get into situations where one crucial thing that you need just isn't there, and you have to go way out of your way to make do with something else. So you've got to be clever."

On top of all the logistical challenges and the constant distraction of wildlife, Mark and the rest of the scientists still had to do their science -- itself a logistical nightmare.

The tricky part was that scientists wanted to measure the same aspects of the environment from the ground, from airplanes, and from space, all three at the same place and at the same time. Imagine all that complex technology coming together with perfect timing to pull off such a feat!

"That means all of your instruments have to be installed and working on the ground, the airplane has to be able to make it to the site with all of its instruments running -- and there are usually several airplanes -- and then of course the space platform, Terra, must be overhead," Mark explained. 


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"The metaphor that Dr. Jim Conel, a colleague of mine at JPL, uses is that it's like trying to balance several pencils on top of each other on the end of your finger -- each pencil representing one of the factors that has to go right before the whole thing gets pulled off."

Left: Mark Helmlinger walking back from setting up an instrument on the Sua Pan in Botswana. Ground-based instruments such as this one were used to verify similar measurements taken by NASA's Terra satellite. Photo by Mark Helmlinger.

When the weather cooperates and everything goes just right, the scientists called it a "Golden Day."

"In this business, if you get one Golden Day a month you're doing good," said Mark, "even though you had every day of that month as an opportunity to do your mission."

During his most recent trip to Africa, Mark's project enjoyed three Golden Days.

Dealing with potentially life-threatening circumstances for months to obtain just three days of peak data certainly reflects the commitment these scientists have for the work they do.

"A lot of these professionals could be making a whole lot more money somewhere else," Mark said. "But they're studying a problem that's ultimately for the benefit of humanity. I think to a small extent that's in the back of everyone's mind, and that's kind of what holds everybody together and keeps us focused."

That and a charging elephant will do wonders for your concentration!

To learn more about Safari 2000 please visit the campaign's home page at or read our August 2000 Science@NASA story "NASA goes on SAFARI."


Web Links

Helmlinger presentation -- Webcast of Mark Helmlinger's presentation at JPL in which he recounts his adventures doing field work in Africa

SAFARI 2000 -- home page

NASA Goes on SAFARI -- Science@NASA article about the SAFARI 2000 campaign

Terra satellite -- home page


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