Famed astronomy and planetary scientist Steve Squyres ’78, Ph.D. ’81, James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences, announced that in just nine days — enough to travel 24 miles on the surface of Mars — he’ll retire from Cornell to take a post as chief scientist at Jeff Bezos’s private space venture, Blue Origin.
As principal investigator of the Opportunity and Spirit rover missions, Squyres led NASA’s exploration efforts on the surface of the red planet, directing the search for life and knowledge from millions of miles away. The Opportunity rover was declared dead last year after a nasty dust storm knocked out communications and power after over 16 years of transmission; its twin Spirit went dark in 2010.
“With the Mars rover missions behind us, it’s time for me to find a new challenge, but I will always be a proud Cornellian,” Squyres said in a press release. Squyres will depart the University on Sept. 22 after over thirty years of teaching for a new voyage.
Bezos’s brainchild Blue Origin is an aerospace manufacturer working to pave the way to space for private citizens. It has run a number of suborbital and orbital test flights, and in May, Bezos announced the intention to reach the moon by 2024. The company is headquartered in Kent, Washington.
Squyres, who’s currently co-teaching a course on the history of exploration — his “favorite class to teach,” he told The Sun last year — will Skype in from the West Coast for the rest of his course sessions this semester.
“It was very generous of him to agree to do this, even after he will have left,” said Prof. Tagliacozzo, history, who co-teaches the course with Squyres, in an email to The Sun. Squyres’ departure, he said, was a big loss for the University.
Tagliacozzo’s course, HIST 1700 History of Exploration: Land, Sea, and Space, was co-created nearly a decade ago by Squyres and Prof. Mary Beth Norton, history, and traces the history of exploration from ships to the stars.
It’s a favorite of many undergraduates, including Greg Livingstone ’21. Livingstone is a mechanical engineering student who picked the class to fill a course requirement last fall, but said that taking a class with the NASA titan had been an “honor.”
“What stuck with me the most was the emotion our professor exhibited when talking about the historical significance of the Apollo 8 mission,” Livingstone told The Sun.
Squyres showed, Livingstone said, how the 1968 mission to orbit the moon “represented a small piece of hope and unity in a world that was seemingly falling apart.”
Squyres popped into lecture on Wednesday to tell his course’s current students about his departure, before it was officially announced. And students in spring’s Astronomy 1102: Our Solar System knew about the end of the Opportunity program a week early, but were also sworn to secrecy.
Caroline Ryan ’22 was present in lecture on Wednesday, her second semester in a course with Squyres, and said that there was never a dull moment. His Blue Origin announcement was met with applause.
“He’s easily one of the best professors I’ve ever had,” Ryan said. “I’m happy for him that he’s heading to greener pastures, but he’s definitely gonna be a tough act to follow.”
Norton, one of the course co-creators but now an emeritus professor, said that the history department hopes that someone from the astronomy department will take over for Squyres.
At Cornell, Squyres leaves behind a network of former students, mentees and colleagues including Prof. Alex Hayes ’03 M.Eng. ’03, astronomy — who is all three. Hayes began in his lab as an undergraduate, and returned to teach at Cornell as well.
The two were partners on proposed mission CAESAR, one of two finalists for nearly one billion dollars of NASA funding, which aimed to sample the core of a moving comet for analysis on the origins of the universe. Squyres would run the sampling mission, with Hayes taking over for phase two — getting the sample back to Earth.
In June, that project was passed over for the other finalist, Dragonfly, which will survey Saturn. Hayes is also affiliated with that project.
Now, Squyres may set his eyes on the moon.
“Steve is the most effective and inspiring leader I have ever met,” Hayes said in a University press release. “You can’t help but feel excited and motivated when working with him.”
Squyres did not return requests for comment on Friday.