January 27, 2004

The Man Behind the Missions

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The fascination and extraterrestrial expertise of Prof. Steven Squyres ’78 Ph.D. ’81, astronomy, has garnered him national attention recently: He’s led the Mars rovers from concept to reality to flawless landings, a feat so difficult only one in three landers have historically survived the trip. That Squyres and his team landed both rovers speaks to the time and energy invested in the project over the past several years.

Yet what hasn’t been as much in the public eye is how much of his life Squyres has dedicated to exploring space. Enrolling at Cornell in 1974, Squyres studied science passionately. He took an active part in his education, joining Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity and continuing his beloved rock climbing.

In his junior year, Squyres took a course taught by Prof. Joe Veverka, the current chair of the Department of Astronomy. The class, on the Viking missions to Mars, would set the course for Squyres’ graduate work on the Voyager mission.

He worked on the imaging team decoding the data sent back by the probes as they passed Jupiter and Saturn, the Jovian planets listed by Cornell as his focus of research.

Since those days, Squyres has been enlisted to help on a number of missions, including the Magellan, the Mars Observer and Russia’s Mars ’96. In between shifts at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and consultations around the world, Squyres has also managed to teach several classes, including Astronomy 280: Space Exploration.

One former student described Squyres as “an extremely enthusiastic professor whose intelligence and superior knowledge of astronomy will never fail to impress.”

Squyres, talking recently with The Sun, discussed the long road to the landings and what they mean to the University.

“I came up with the idea several years ago,” he explained, “and proposed it to NASA several times. In 1997, they accepted the proposal.”

NASA’s participation, however, was put in peril as budget shortfalls and failed missions jeopardized much of its future plans. Despite this, in June and July of 2003, the identical rovers were successfully launched and began their 280-million-mile journey to the Red Planet. Exploring Mars, Squyres said, “has been the primary focus of my career for the past decade. … That makes it pretty important to me.”

Squyres also shed some light on the convoluted NASA/JPL/Cornell relationship. He explained that NASA provides the funding for the programs, while JPL builds and operates the crafts. Cornell, for the Mars rover missions, designed and commissioned the Athena scientific payload on the crafts and is in charge of carrying out the scientific operations and deciding where the rovers will explore.

Squyres also talked about the importance of the program to Cornell.

“It has enabled many Cornell students to become involved in a cutting-edge program,” he said. “It is a fantastic education opportunity because it’s a high-profile, nationally televised public event. It displays the University in a very positive way.”

Although he was uncertain exactly how many Cornell students have been involved with the project, Squyres did note that the length of the project had allowed many students a chance to work on the program.

“[The number of students involved] is well into the many dozens, including a lot of undergraduates. We’ve been working on this for six years now, so there have been a lot of undergraduates who have been involved in the past as well,” he said. “Two to three times [the current number] have been involved with the project.”

He added that the project is important on a larger scale as well, saying, “This mission is true exploration in the fullest sense of the word.”

Many other Cornellians have played prominent roles in the mission as well. Prof. Jim Bell, astronomy, has been in charge of the PanCam, which has sent back pictures with three to four times higher resolution than any previous mission. Prof. James B. Maas Ph.D. ’66, psychology, has also been doing research on the Mars scientists as they adjust their work schedules to match the longer Martian day, while also advising them on how to cope with the physiological stress it creates. Even science guy Bill Nye ’77 contributed his part by adding the first interplanetary sundial to the rovers.

Aside from these people, countless other professors, graduate students and undergraduates have helped to make the mission, in the words of Squyres, “a 300-million-mile interplanetary hole-in-one.”

Archived article by Michael Morisy