- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

ITHACA, N.Y. - There is awe in Steven Squyres’ voice when he talks about Mars. His tone gathers passion as he speaks. In a short time, his enthusiasm is contagious as he marvels about humanity’s approaching visit to the Red Planet.

Like his former professor, the late astronomer Carl Sagan, the 47-year-old Cornell scientist has a gift for sharing his zeal.

Mr. Squyres will likely become familiar as the face and voice of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s mission to Mars this month and the pioneering drive across its surface by two robotic rovers named Spirit and Opportunity.

“I want to make as many people as possible feel like they are part of this adventure,” Mr. Squyres said. “We are going to give everybody a sense of what exploring the surface of another world is really like.”

Spirit is scheduled to land tomorrow at Gusev Crater. Opportunity should settle down on the opposite side of the planet Jan. 24 in an area called the Meridiani Planum. Mr. Squyres realizes two-thirds of all previous missions to Mars have failed, but the possibility of success enthralls him.

“Besides making important science discoveries … this mission will also help to rekindle a public passion for space exploration. You can’t do that unless you really make the effort to share it with them,” Mr. Squyres said during a recent interview in his Cornell campus office.

If Mr. Squyres sounds like someone personally invested in this historic mission, he is.

He is the principal scientist for the project, which he first conceived of in 1987 and won NASA approval for a decade later. The robotic explorers will examine Mars’ rocks and soil for minerals signaling the past presence of water.

The existence of water in Mars’ past also offers the chance that it harbored life.

“The thing that sets Mars apart is that it is the one planet that is enough like Earth that you can imagine life possibly once having taken hold there,” Mr. Squyres said.

Mr. Squyres helped design, build and test all the scientific tools on the twin 400-pound solar-powered rovers. Once the unmanned rovers are on the Martian surface, he will lead the team conducting the day-to-day science operations, helping determine where to drive, what pictures to take and what rocks to look at.

“Steve understands Mars like no one else,” said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, a Pasadena, Calif.-based space-exploration advocacy group that Mr. Sagan helped found.

Mr. Friedman credits Mr. Squyres with steering the rover project through difficult times at NASA and well-publicized setbacks trying to explore Mars, including two failed 1999 missions, the Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander.

“Steve has a tremendous amount of energy. He is relentless in the pursuit of his goals,” said Mr. Friedman.

Ray Arvidson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who is the project’s deputy principal scientist, called Mr. Squyres “brilliant and intense.”

“He commands the respect of the team,” he said.

Mr. Squyres first came to Cornell in the mid-1970s as an undergraduate to study geology and combine his two great passions: science and rock climbing.

During his junior year, Mr. Squyres’ interest turned to space when he took a course on the 1976 Viking mission to Mars taught by Joe Veverka, now chairman of Cornell’s astronomy department.

“He was one of our star students,” said Mr. Veverka. “Steve is a true explorer. He just always seemed to have a focus.”

For graduate school, Mr. Squyres stayed at Cornell, worked with Mr. Veverka and Mr. Sagan on the Voyager missions and made the first of now countless round-trip visits to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and back. He left to work at NASA’s Ames Research Center, also in California, for five years and returned to Cornell in 1986 to teach.

Like Mr. Sagan’s, Mr. Squyres’ classes are among the most popular, Mr. Veverka said.

“He has never forgotten the excitement he felt as a student, and he’s good at conveying that to his students. He has had a lasting influence on many young people,” Mr. Veverka said. “He is a great scientist. But he’s a great teacher, too.”

Mr. Squyres was raised in southern New Jersey, near Camden. His father is a chemical engineer for DuPont and holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A family vacation to the Rocky Mountains at age 8 first kindled Mr. Squyres’ interest in rocks and geology. Mr. Squyres said his fondest childhood memories involve science, like the Christmas he received a 3-inch reflector telescope and his father helped him chart the orbit of Jupiter’s four largest moons.

For three years, Mr. Squyres’ routine has included weekly commutes to the West Coast to oversee the Mars project.

In recent months, his schedule has been compounded with his additional duty as “project ambassador.”

“It’s a crucial and necessary part of what we do,” Mr. Squyres said.

These days he finds himself giving lots of interviews about the Mars mission. And a crew for the PBS science show “Nova” has followed him around for more than a year preparing a documentary for broadcast early this year. An IMAX movie is in development.

Mr. Squyres jokes that he is not the first media star in his family. His younger brother, Tim, is a successful film editor who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work with director Ang Lee in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Noting that the Mars project is costing $820 million, he views it as an obligation “to do this and do it right.”

“Having been given that public trust, we have a responsibility to share with the public,” he said.

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