Prof. Steve Squyres
Submitted: Saturday, 9th December 2006 by Mike Salway

Professor Steve Squyres is the lead scientist and Principal Investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission, where the two robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity are still doing amazing science after more than 1000 days on Mars. He's also the Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and is a member of the imaging team for the Cassini mission orbiting Saturn.

Mike talks to Steve about the ups and downs of the MER Mission, the recent announcement of new water found on Mars, what it's like and what it takes to be a planetary scientist and principal investigator, his past and future, and much more..


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Prof Steve Squyres

IIS: Please tell us a bit about you and your family. You’re married with children? Where are you living right now?

SS: Yeah, my wife Mary and I have been married for twenty-three years. We have two daughters… Nicky and Katy. Nicky is a freshman in college, and Katy is in high school. We live in Ithaca, New York.

IIS: How have you and your family coped over the last 2 years? I imagine you’ve spent a lot of time away from them.

SS: It has been tough, and for a lot longer than two years. Between 1997 and 2003 I commuted from Ithaca to California and back almost once a week. Then, once we landed in January of 2004, I lived in California for eight months, only going home for brief visits about once a month. All of that was very difficult… for me, being away from my family so much, and especially for my wife, having to take care of the home and two kids without me around much of the time. Since September of ’04, though, I’ve been doing flight operations from Ithaca, and not travelling nearly as much. It’s been really nice… I can operate rovers on Mars all day and then go home and sleep in my own bed at night. 

IIS: When did your interest in geology begin? What was the spark that made you want to do it as a career?

SS: Since the earliest age I can remember I’ve been interested in science. And then, starting from age eight and into my teen years, I developed a love of mountaineering as a result of family vacations in Colorado and Vermont. So I figured that geology would be a way to combine science and climbing. What really did it for me, though, was that during the summer between my final year of high school and my first year of college I participated in a glacial geology expedition on the Juneau Icefield in southeast Alaska. That was a fantastic experience, and it really convinced me that what I wanted to do was some kind of geologic exploration.

"I signed up, and within weeks I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."

IIS: What led you into space exploration and planetary science?

SS: Cornell University, where I was a student, had a language requirement… you either had to complete four semesters of a language or pass a proficiency test in that language. After three semesters of Spanish I barely – and unexpectedly – passed the test. I found out about it right before the start of the semester, and suddenly I had a hole in my schedule, since I didn’t have to take that fourth semester of Spanish. A friend was visiting me, and one day while I was showing her around campus, we stopped into the Space Sciences building. She noticed a note on the bulletin board that a professor who was a part of the Viking mission science team would be teaching a course about Mars. I signed up, and within weeks I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

IIS: Your book “Roving Mars” is a fantastic read – educational, entertaining and inspiring. One thing that stands out to me, is the effort involved in getting these rovers onto Mars - the politics, the bureaucracy, technical and budget challenges and limitations. Literally, a 20-year exercise to get your hardware on Mars. Did you ever give up hope? What kept you going back year after year – failed proposal after failed proposal?

SS: I never gave up hope, but there were times when our prospects looked pretty grim. One of the things that kept me going is simply that I’m just a very stubborn person, I guess. Part of it was also fear… fear that if I gave up, quite a few years of my career would have been largely wasted. Mostly, though, it was just a very solid belief that if we ever did get a chance to do it, it would be really, really cool.

IIS: What challenges do you face as a scientist when you have to work so closely with engineers?

SS: If you’re a scientist, what you really want to do is find out the truth – in our case, to find out what Mars was like long ago. With that as your goal, it can be very painful to compromise on things like instrument performance, rover capability, and so forth. Engineers, on the other hand, are very practical people who have to get a real job done… safely, on time, and within budget. At first, it was hard to accept the compromises that were necessary to get the job done. But with time, as I got to know the engineers better and came to appreciate how dedicated they were and how difficult their jobs were, it became much easier. At this point, 1000 sols into the mission, the team is made up almost entirely of scientists who think like engineers and engineers who think like scientists.


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Spirit rolls onto Mars for the first time

IIS: Can you describe 3 key highlights of the entire mission so far? Launch? Landing? Opportunity hitting the gold mine on Sol 1?

SS: For me, the first highlight was simply getting the go-ahead from NASA to do the mission. That in itself was the culmination of more than a decade of effort. The second was the landings, which were by far the most dangerous events that the rovers faced. And the third was definitely Sol 12 for Spirit, when we first had six wheels in the dirt on Mars. That was the point at which I really felt we had done it… gotten a roving vehicle with a big science payload onto Mars, ready to explore.

IIS: Can you describe 3 of the lowest points (for you) during the MER mission so far? The squidding chute? Almost losing Spirit on Sol 20? Being away from your family?

SS: You correctly guessed two of the three… the Sol 18 anomaly on Spirit, when we nearly lost the vehicle after the mission had barely started, and spending so much time away from my family. The squidding, while it was bad, was a problem for which the engineers found a solution so quickly that I wouldn’t put it at the top of my list. Instead, I would say the third one was the aftermath of the blown fuse that happened in April of ’03, shortly before we launched. That came very close to grounding both rovers.

"Designing a new lander, new airbags, and a new chute busted our budget, busted our schedule, and very nearly kept us from getting to Mars."


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Artwork image of a Mars Rover
Credit: NASA/JPL

IIS: What was the most unexpected challenge during the MER mission?

SS: There were many unexpected challenges, but the most serious one was definitely dealing with the growth of the rover. In the process of developing the rover, our estimates of its size and mass grew. The growth was not enormous, but it was enough for us to have to completely throw out the Mars Pathfinder-derived lander, airbag, and parachute designs that we had hoped to use. Designing a new lander, new airbags, and a new chute busted our budget, busted our schedule, and very nearly kept us from getting to Mars.

IIS: Have you ever been into visual astronomy? When’s the last time you looked through a telescope? Do you ever take the opportunity to look up at Mars through a telescope and think “my rovers are up there”?

SS: I had small telescopes back when I was a kid that I used to use a lot. Most of my professional science has been done using spacecraft, but I have used telescopes a little bit. I’ve been involved in infrared observations of Mars using the 200-inch telescope at Mt. Palomar, and I was also involved in Palomar observations of the impact of comet Shomaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter. I don’t often get a chance to look through telescopes at Mars these days, but I do seek Mars out in the night sky whenever I can. It’s funny… it looks very different to me now than it used to. Before we launched, it seemed almost impossibly distant. Now I feel like I know the place.

IIS: Is there, or has there been any “Y2K” type bug hidden away in the rovers software? Being only designed for a 90-day mission, have there been any unexpected surprises or software updates required since they’ve lasted so much longer than anticipated?

SS: Yeah, we called it the S1K bug. Our software, particularly the ground software, was never designed to handle four-digit sol numbers. We had to do a lot of work and a lot of testing to get ready for Sol 1000.

IIS: Spirit and Opportunity discovered evidence of past water on Mars but found no evidence of recent water. What are your thoughts on the latest announcement from NASA showing the MGS imagery that may indicate evidence of recent water on Mars?

SS: It’s great stuff. It’s been known since early in the MGS mission, when the gullies were first discovered, that they were geologically young. But catching one of them in the act is very cool. It’s certainly a discovery that deserves some follow-up, which is something that I’m sure we’ll be doing soon with the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

IIS: If there was recent water on Mars, wouldn’t we have seen other evidence of it before now?

SS: Only if we were very lucky. If there are only small, infrequent releases of subsurface water, as has been hypothesized for the gullies, you’d need to get pretty lucky to see something happen.

IIS: How much involvement do you still have in the day-to-day running of the MER project?

SS: I’m typing my responses to your questions during a break between the Master/Submaster Walkthrough and the Command Approval Meeting for Opportunity Sols 1023 and 1024… part of our daily operations process. In fact, I’m involved directly in flight operations just about every weekday that I’m in Ithaca. I really enjoy flight ops, and I’m going to stay with it until the last rover dies.

IIS: Do you have any regrets? Is there an instrument you wished could’ve been included in the payload? Another site you would’ve preferred to have landed?

SS: Depends on how you look at the question. Can I imagine other instruments I’d like to have on the payload, or other places on Mars I’d rather be? Absolutely. But that’s rewriting history. Given the amount of time and money that we had, there is very little that I would do differently if I had it to do over again. In fact, it has turned out so much better than I ever expected, I’m not sure I’d dare change a thing.

IIS: Can you describe a typical “day at the office”?

SS: I wake up, make myself a cup of tea, and log into the database at JPL from home to see the images that came down from Mars overnight. I head for the office at about 10:00 AM Eastern time (7:00 Pacific), and while I’m driving in to work I think about what we ought to do on Mars the next day. At 10:30 I have a brief phone tag-up with the engineers at JPL where we talk about the general structure of the day… what sorts of pictures we might want to take, whether we want to drive or not. The big event of the day, the Science Operations Working Group meeting, starts at 11:00. Lately I’ve been running SOWG meetings for Opportunity. At that meeting, which is conducted by videoconference and teleconference and involves the engineering team at JPL and the science team all across the US and in Europe, we work out the details of what we want the rover to do the next day. Then, for the rest of the day, there’s a sequence of additional meetings conducted via teleconference: the Activity Plan Approval Meeting, the Master/Submaster Walkthrough, and the Command Approval Meeting. During these meetings, and a lot of intensive work and discussion between them, we take the plan that we generated at the SOWG Meeting and turn it into the exact set of commands that go up to the spacecraft. The commands are typically ready to go by about 7:00 PM Eastern, though occasionally it takes  much longer. Then I go home, spend the evening with my family, and the next morning I get up and we do it again.

"You have to test your stuff a lot, test it just like you’re going to fly it, and then fly it just like you tested it."

IIS: What have you learnt from the MER mission that you can take to future Mars missions, or missions to other terrestrial solar system bodies?

SS: The main thing I’ve learned is that there is no substitute for lots of testing during development. If you look at the Mars missions that have been lost, many of the failures can be traced to inadequacies in the test program. You have to test your stuff a lot, test it just like you’re going to fly it, and then fly it just like you tested it.


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Enceladus from the Cassini Imaging Team
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

IIS: You’re also on the imaging team for Cassini, the probe orbiting Saturn right now. Fantastic images are being returned every week. What are some of the highlights from your time on this project?

SS: My main interests at the Saturn system are the planet’s moons, so the highlights for me have definitely been Enceladus, Titan, and Iapetus.

IIS: What projects/missions are you working on right now?

SS: Besides MER and Cassini, there’s also the Gamma-Ray Spectrometer on Mars Odyssey, the HRSC camera on Mars Express, and the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. I’m also involved in developing several instruments for the MSL rover. But to be honest, I’m spending nearly all my time on MER.

IIS: What’s next for you? What future challenges await?

SS: The first thing for me is going to be a very long rest once MER is over! This has been a very long and intense mission, much longer than I ever anticipated. Once it finally ends, I’m going to enjoy taking some time off and spending lots of time with my family. Beyond that, MRO and MSL should keep me pretty busy for awhile.

IIS: Will you continue to work on Mars related missions, or do you have plans to send scientific instruments to other solar system bodies such as Saturn’s moon, Titan or one the moons of Jupiter such as Europa?

SS: Europa intrigues me… it always has. I’ll certainly continue to be involved in future Mars missions, but if the chance came along to do something serious at Europa, that would be hard to resist.

IIS: Where else in the Solar System should we look for signs of water and/or life?

SS: Europa!

IIS: What are you most proud of?

SS: That’s hard to answer, with the mission still going on. But I can name a couple of things that I hope will be part of the legacy of MER. One is setting a new benchmark for how scientists and engineers can work together on a space mission. Another is giving the general public – the people who paid for all of this – a real sense of participation in a mission of exploration.

IIS: What motivates you? What inspires you? Both professionally and personally.

SS: What motivates me is mostly curiosity… a love of seeing things that nobody has ever seen before, and then figuring out what those things mean. What inspires me are some of the great scientists I’ve known who have done these things so well.

IIS: Do you have any spare time? What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in front of a team of scientists, a microphone or a camera? Do you have any hobbies or other interests?

SS: I don’t have as much spare time as I’d like, of course. What spare time I do have, I mostly enjoy spending with my family… dinners out with my wife, skiing with my daughter, that sort of thing. My main hobbies are the kinds of outdoor activities that a place like Ithaca is so good for, particularly cycling in the summer and ice climbing in the winter. I also enjoy playing various musical instruments, mostly guitar and keyboards, turning the volume up very high to compensate for my lack of any actual musical talent.

IIS: Thankyou very much for taking the time to talk to IceInSpace.

SS: You’re very welcome.

Interview by Mike Salway (iceman). Discuss this interview on the IceInSpace Forum.

References and Further Reading

ScopeDome Australia
Limpet Controller
Astronomy and Electronics Centre
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