November 18, 2014

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Professor Steven Squyres: The Man Behind the Mars Rover Project

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For nearly his entire life, the principal investigator for the Mars Rover Project, Prof. Steven Squyres ’78 Ph.D. ’82, astronomy, has been interested in science.

Squyres — who was awarded the American Astronomical Society Carl Sagan Medal in 2009 for his ability to connect the general public with updates on the Mars Rover missions — said the idea of exploration has appealed to him since childhood.

“When I was six years old, I considered myself to be a scientist — I just wasn’t a very good one yet,” he said.

Steve Squyres (Michelle Feldman / Sun Senior Editor)

Steve Squyres (Michelle Feldman / Sun Senior Editor)

Steve Squyres (Michelle Feldman / Sun Senior Editor)

As a child, Squyres said he would read books about explorers in the Arctic, the Antarctic and the deep ocean.

“The idea of going some place nobody’s ever been really held an enormous appeal for me,” Squyres said.

During the summer between his senior year of high school and his freshman year at Cornell, Squyres said he participated in a field research project on the Juneau Ice Field in southeastern Alaska.

“Over the course of that summer, I decided I was going to major in geology,” he said.

However, after studying geology for a few years, Squyres said he felt that too little remained to be discovered in the rocks of the earth.

“There just weren’t too many places left where nobody had ever been,” he said.

In his junior year, Squyres took a graduate-level course in astronomy, where he examined photographs from the recent Viking mission to Mars for a term paper.

“[My professor] gave me a key to the Mars Room and I thought, ‘Alright, I’ll go over to the Mars Room, and I’ll flip through some pictures, and I’ll see if I can come up with an idea for a term paper,’” Squyres said. “I figured I would spend 15 or 20 minutes looking at pictures and see if I could come up with a term paper idea.”

That first encounter with Mars, however, changed Squryes’ life.

“I was in that room for four hours, and I came out of there knowing exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said.

Squyres said that Carl Sagan, a  renowned astronomer and Cornell faculty member from 1971 to 1996, was one of his greatest influences while he was a graduate student at Cornell. According to Squyres, when he applied for graduate schools, Sagan wrote to him saying that “he wanted [Squyres] to be his grad student for the Voyager mission.”

“In 2000 NASA said, ‘We will send your rover to Mars — in fact, we will send two of them. Here’s all the money you need. Ready, set, go.” — Prof. Steven Squyres

Squyres said he was impressed with the way Sagan communicated his scientific intuition.

“He would show you how you could take a problem that looked incomprehensibly hard, and break it down and find the little bits of it that mattered the most,” Squyres said.

Squyres added that he applied these skills when facing media attention surrounding the Mars Rover Mission — especially when the mission released all of its pictures in real-time directly to the Internet.

“Nobody had ever done that before; this was new,” Squyres said. “If I was asleep and you were awake, you could see pictures of Mars before I saw them.”

From 1987 to 1997, Squyres said he wrote four proposals to NASA for a Mars Rover mission. Though his first three proposals were rejected, Squyres said he rebounded from the rejections by refining his next proposal.

“Finally, in 2000 NASA said, ‘We will send your rover to Mars — in fact, we will send two of them. Here’s all the money you need. Ready, set, go,’” Squyres said. “We had to be on top of the rockets and ready to fly in Florida four months later, and it was crazy.”

Squyres said he used his training as a geologist to design the rovers as a “robotic field geologist.” The robot needed to be able to “[get] down onto the surface” and “be able to move around.”

“[I needed] a vehicle that you could load up with the kind of stuff a geologist would want to have in their backpack or back in their laboratory and be able to move it around on the surface of Mars,” Squyres said.

Squyres said that he envisions a new era where “everyone” can feel directly involved in exploration.

“The exploration that we’re doing, we get to take everybody along with us,” Squyres said. “Anybody can follow it basically in real time as its happening and that’s really cool. I really like being able to do that.”

Squyres said he continues to explore Mars through the Opportunity rover, which has now surpassed its operating plan by over a decade. He added that even though “dealing with the unexpected” may pose challenges, it “is actually the most fun part of the job.”

“[Those challenges are] what makes it to this day still interesting,” he said. “Mars is still throwing surprises at us and that is what makes it fun.”