October 6, 2006

The Sun Speaks With Steve Squyres on Mars Missions

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The Sun spoke to Steven Squyres ’82, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, on his experiences with the current Mars Exploration Rover Mission, and his thoughts on the Victoria Crater dilemma and the possibility of landing humans on the Red Planet. Squyres has been teaching astronomy at Cornell since 1986. He is also a principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, which has been ongoing since 2003. On Sept. 27, Opportunity finally reached Victoria Crater after an almost two year long journey.

Sun: How did you get involved with the Mars Exploration Rover Mission program?
Squyres: Almost 20 years ago in 1987, I first decided that I wanted to develop a lander or a rover for Mars, so I wrote a proposal to NASA. My team and I spent a decade, from 1987-1997, writing failed proposals before one was accepted. NASA takes a Darwinian approach to selecting proposals for their missions. They recognize that competition brings out the best ideas; it makes people want to sharpen ideas to come up with best possible concepts. Our initial proposals were not as good as the final one.

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Sun: Are any other Cornell faculty on the team?
Squyres: The other Cornell professor involved is Jim Bell, astronomy, who is responsible for the Pancam (rover panoramic camera) team. There are also a few other staff members involved, plus some grad students and even undergrads. About 60 to 80 undergrads have worked on the project; some helped build the hardware on the surface of Mars. They built it on campus and even engraved their initials on it. Students have been involved in every phase of the project from the very beginning up until literally today.

Sun: Did you ever imagine that your mission would encounter such success?
Squyres: Well, you dream about such things, of course. There were times when things looked very grim, but through all of it, we tried to maintain a vision of what we wanted to accomplish. A vision of success is what kept us motivated when our proposals were being rejected and through the failed Mars missions. I never expected it to go this well, but the idea that it might was a big part of keeping us motivated.

Sun: What were your goals for this mission?
Squyres: One goal was to find out more about Mars history. You can’t do that completely from orbit. You’ll be stunned by what you see in the HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Sciences) images, but even with that imaging, questions remain. Viking and Pathfinder only photographed a flat plane around the vehicles that only showed a blob of boulders. This was all we had ever seen of Mars — nothing like the Victoria crater images we have today. My other goal was to rekindle a public passion for exploration. This doesn’t have much to do with science, but it deals with giving everyone in the country the chance to log onto the web everyday and look at images of Mars that came down literally hours ago. They will see things that no one has ever seen before and be part of a real journey of true exploration where we’re going somewhere where no one has ever been.

Sun: Now that you’ve reached Victoria Crater, do you plan on going inside?
Squyres: Well that’s a good question, what we’re going to do first is partially circumnavigate the crater, working our way around while taking images of all the promontories (protrusions) and out coves. The slope of the Crater is gentle enough that the rover can drive down it. What I don’t know is whether the rover can drive up it, and I don’t want to do a one-way trip into this crater if I don’t have to. So, we’re going around the crater and mapping what we see, as we look for where the best geology is and the best routes into and out of the crater. After that, we’ll see what comes next.

Sun: Are you involved in any of the future Mars Missions?
Squyres: I am involved in many of the ongoing and future Mars Missions. I’m on the science team for the Mars Express European Space Agency mission and with the HiRISE team. We just got the high-rise images down this weekend and they are sensational. There’s going to be a press conference in Washington today where we’re going to present these images. After that, I’m involved in the next rover mission MSL (Mars Science Laboratory), which launches in 2009. NASA doesn’t have definite plans for Mars beyond 2009. You don’t want to plan these missions too far ahead because each mission builds on the discoveries of the previous ones, but NASA recently accepted proposals for missions to fly in 2011 and I’m a participant in one of them.

Sun: One last question, you’re obviously passionate about sending robots to Mars, but how do you feel about sending humans?
Squyres: Well, robotic exploration is what I do. However, I feel that the best exploration is only possible with humans, but it will be extraordinarily dangerous. It will take tons of time and money, so it becomes a matter of: is this consistent with national goals and priorities? Do we have the national will to do this? I think if you look only to science, you have to ask the question, is it worth the money? The science we can do at Mars is fabulous. But, you have to wonder: is it worth the hundreds of billions of dollars that it will cost? If the answer is no, and I think that most people feel this way, then you have to consider the other benefits. Sending humans to Mars can be inspirational, especially to young people, who may desire careers in science and technology. In a technologically driven society, this is essential. Last weekend, I gave a speech at the Franklin Institution, and every kid there wanted to be an astronaut. They aren’t all going to be astronauts, but this desire will inspire them to work harder at their math and science classes and hopefully major in math and science in college. So, when you look at the value of sending humans to Mars, you have to look at it broadly.