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To MARS with MER - MER the Mission

Steve Squyres
ATHENA Science Team Leader
Cornell University

"June 8, 2003" (Opening day of the delayed Launch Window)

P2K: So, what happened today a little earlier?

Steve Squyres: Well, we scrubbed. We had about four million dollars (worth) of rocket and spacecraft out on the pad there behind me, and a line of thunderstorms was coming through, just the wrong time, and the decision was made not to launch today. So we all get to go to the beach and try again tomorrow. That's life in the "rocket business."

P2K: Were you surprised, based on what the weather looked like this morning?

Steve Squyres: No, we were expecting that. They've been predicting weather was going to be kind of off and on all week, and in fact it's standard for summertime in Florida. Afternoons you build up these thunderstorms, and you just sort of dodge thunderstorms everyday until you get out of here.

P2K: Do you think most of the people on the team were expecting to have to come back and try again?

Steve Squyres: I think probably the ones who have some experience were, yeah. I mean, if you've been to a lot of launches you know that scrubs are just part of the routine. So we have a pretty experienced team. I'm guessing that probably a lot of people were figuring we'd be down here for a little while.

P2K: (Joking about Steve being relaxing on a beach!) So, this, of course, is what everybody imagines that people are doing with government money, having a day on the beach and relaxing. How hard have people been working down here in reality?

Steve Squyres: The last three weeks have almost, I would almost say, have been the hardest part of the entire project.

We had an incident back in April on the MER-2 spacecraft where we blew a fuse on the spacecraft and that created a huge amount of activity, work to be done. We had to prove that we understood why the fuse blew, we had to prove that the spacecraft was going to work okay with the fuse blown, because it's very deep inside the spacecraft and there's no way to get at it. And in the process of investigating the fuse we also turned up some other issues on the spacecraft that we really had to put to rest, and it has been incredibly intense. I mean, we didn't get a firm go-ahead to launch until just a few days ago, once we put all these fuse issues to rest. So it's been really rough.

P2K: It rained here about an hour ago. When did it last rain on Mars?

Steve Squyres: Oh, man, we don't know if it ever rained on Mars, actually. If it did it was a very long time ago, hundreds of millions, billions of years, got no idea. It's something I'd like to find out.

P2K: So you got all this new data back from MGS and Odyssey, seeing lots of water beneath it, and yet you've got (Phil) Christensen coming out with a science paper saying it's very dry, it's been very dry for a very long time. What is this new data showing us about Mars?

Steve Squyres: We don't know. You know, we're still piecing this puzzle together, it's going to take a long time to do it. Clearly a lot of volcanic rocks all over the place, clearly there's ice beneath the ground at high latitudes, so when you ask yourself "where did the water go," well, a lot of it's locked beneath the ground as ice.

But then what intrigues me is that there are all these places where clearly water flowed across the surface. You see these dried up riverbeds, dried up lake beds, evidence that once upon a time, and I don't know when that was, but once upon a time the climate was warmer, it was wetter, it was more Earth-like. And trying to piece that story together is one of the things I'm really interested in, and in fact that's a big part of what the Mars Exploration Rovers mission is about.

P2K: Yesterday at the press conferences, the various folks from Washington were saying, you've got water, you've got energy, you've got nutrients - the odds on life are pretty high. That's a very optimistic scenario.

Steve Squyres: We don't know that. I mean, what we know, what we really know, is that everywhere on Earth that you have water and biologically-useful energy and organic molecules, you have life. We know that. We know that those things are all required for life. We don't know that if you have those three things life will somehow come into being. That we don't know. And it's an interesting assumption. Maybe it's correct, maybe it's not. Mars is a good place to test that hypothesis.

P2K: You've got gullies which some people said are caused by rapidly-flowing liquid water. You've got stains that seem to be, perhaps, in some people's minds caused by very saline solutions that can exist in sub-zero temperatures. Can we assume recent liquid water on Mars from this kind of evidence?

Steve Squyres: Maybe. Maybe. It's very hard to tell. We haven't got proof. We've got a lot of tantalizing clues. It's going to take a lot more work, more missions, send a lot of spacecraft to some very tough places, and bit by bit we're going to piece it together. There's no way you're going to figure this all out in one shot.

I mean, look at where we are in our knowledge of Mars now compared to where we were ten, twelve years ago, before MGS and Pathfinder and Odyssey. I mean, there's been a huge increment, each one of those missions has contributed a lot. And you've got the Mars Exploration Rovers coming up, you've got Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter coming after that, you've got a Scout mission after that. Ten years from now we're going to be way smarter. What we're going to know I don't know, but it's a continual process of knowledge building.

P2K: I know you're a rock guy, but would you rather have flown a life detection experiment if you had your druthers?

Steve Squyres: If I knew how to build a life detection experiment, and I knew where to send it with a reasonable probability of success, absolutely. I mean, that's swinging for the fence, right, that's trying to hit the homerun.

If I had to guess, I'd guess that if you want to do a life detection experiment you got to look way down below the surface, and that's hard to do, and I don't know where you'd want to look below the surface. We're not, in my view, smart enough yet - I don't feel like I'm smart enough yet, anyway - to do that experiment with a high enough probability of success that I feel that NASA can justify it to the American taxpayers.

You could take a shot at it and maybe you'll get lucky, but the standards for probability of success in the Mars business at NASA are very, very high. Especially after we lose a couple of missions in 1998, we are expected to succeed. And if you try for too much in one shot you run the risk of blowing it.

P2K: So where does the Mars Exploration Rovers mission stand in the great panoply, the great chain of Mars missions: Viking, Pathfinder, MGS, and on into the future. What is the mission's particular contribution?

Steve Squyres: Our particular contribution, I hope, will be to - at one or both of these places on the surface where we're landing - determine whether or not Mars had an environment that would have been suitable for life. Find a habitable place.

Right now, Mars is a miserable place. Sixty degrees below zero, you could take all the water in the atmosphere and condense it down on the surface, it would be a layer a hundredth of a millimeter thick. It is cold, it's dry, it's barren, it's desolate, it's nothing like this, OK. (Gesturing over his shoulder to indicate the Florida surf.) But a long time ago it clearly was different. I want to know how different it was, how warm, how wet, how suitable it would have been for life.

And one of the ways in which the Mars Exploration Rovers mission, I think, could fit in in a big way in the future is that if we determine that the places we went to would have been good places for life, they'd be great places to go for a sample return. Go back to our landing sites and bring back a sample, two, one from each site, if we find out that those were in fact habitable places. Then, when we get the samples back, then you can really take those samples to the world's best laboratories and see what's there.

P2K: Just how unique, how good an opportunity, is the 2003 launch opportunity to get to Mars?

Steve Squyres: The 2003 opportunity is a particularly good one for a landed mission that is solar-powered. There's two things that are good about it. First of all, we're landing when Mars is pretty close to the Sun. That's good because we have more solar power. Also, we're landing when Mars is very close to Earth, and what that enables us to do is to get a lot more data back, to get data back at a high rate. When you consider those two criteria, this is the best launch opportunity for the next eighteen years. So I'm glad we're going now. I don't want to wait eighteen years.

P2K: Apparently we're closer to Mars this coming summer than in ten thousand, sixty thousand, seventy-three thousand, or a hundred thousand years, based on who you listen to. Is that anything to do with the opportunity?

Steve Squyres: Not really. It has more to do - the fact that this is a good opportunity just simply has to do with the relative positions of Earth and Mars and the Sun, not at closest approach but at the time we actually arrive.

P2K: Sitting on the pad behind you you've got your baby. How long have you been working on that particular package?

Steve Squyres: Oh, man, it's been, like, ten years. It's been ten years since we put the payload together. It's been seven years plus since we decided to try to put her on a rover and convince NASA to do it. So it's been a really, really long road to get to this point.

P2K: The ATHENA system, which is "proven, tried, ready to go" inside the Pathfinder package, no brainer, quick and easy, "build to print." (Intentionally provocative statement.)

Steve Squyres: Hah. Yeah, I wish. That was the plan. At the time when the Mars Exploration Rovers mission first got started we knew we had a good landing system from Pathfinder. We knew we had a good rover design, we knew we had a great payload, and the idea was just to merge those all together and make it work. The problem was, a payload drives the size of the rover. The rover has to fit inside the landing system, and it didn't quite fit in the Pathfinder landing system. The Pathfinder system was about, I don't know, ten percent too small to hold our whole package. And when that had to change, it got heavier, it got bigger, the whole thing expanded and we had to go back and start over with the whole landing system. The airbags had to be revalidated, the parachutes, the lander had to be redesigned. It turned into a much, much bigger job than anybody anticipated when we first got started.

P2K: Than anybody anticipated - is that standard operating procedure or...?

Steve Squyres: Well, it wasn't intentional, right? We really thought that this package was going to fit and it didn't, and, thank goodness, NASA stuck with us. When it became clear that we were going to have to go back and do more work, they didn't get cold feet, they didn't back out, they increased our funding, they gave us the resources we needed to get the job done.

If we had it to do over again we would have done it differently, frankly. We would have realized from the start that we were going to have to make these changes. We would have saved some time on our schedule, we wouldn't have been so rushed at the end. You know, it would have been easier if we had known. But, hey, this is hard stuff.

P2K: Gentry Lee is, I think, lobbying for some of the future missions to say "You don't have the money, you don't have the time, don't start." What do you think about that approach? How would that have impacted actually making the Mars Exploration Rovers get to the launchpad?

Steve Squyres: I think if we had realized what a difficult job this was at the time when we started it, maybe NASA wouldn't have picked us, to be honest with you. I mean, I don't know, you'd have to ask the guys at NASA headquarters that question. But it's turned out to be a tougher job than anybody thought. If we had realized how hard it was going to be, I'm not sure anybody would have gone for it. It's a miracle that we pulled it off. This team that JPL put together on this project is just unbelievable. I mean, just, it's a thrill, it's exhilarating to be part of this group.

P2K: What was the biggest challenge on the way through?

Steve Squyres: Schedule. I mean, schedule, schedule, and schedule were the top three problems. It's been that way from the start. Knowing how to get the job done, finding ways to get it done safely and thoroughly, and still get to that launchpad for a date with the rocket that was fixed, was the toughest part. Nothing else comes close.

P2K: The Pathfinder people say the number of reviews on the Mars Exploration Rovers mission was incredible in comparison to Pathfinder. The oversight, the double-checking, the paperwork. But do you wonder if there is some sort of fatal flaw that somehow got through and is sitting there on the launchpad along with your baby?

Steve Squyres: Of course you wonder about that. You always wonder whether or not there's some sort of fatal flaw on the vehicle. It's so complicated, the machine is so complex - look at the job it has to do. This thing's got to travel all the way to Mars, three hundred fifty million miles or something like that, it's got to come screaming into the atmosphere at mach twenty-five, it's got to land on the surface, bounce, deploy, unfold, and then drive across the surface of another planet. It's got to do all those things and do terrific science at the same time, with the whole world watching. That is a fantastically complicated job. It requires a fantastically complicated machine. Is the machine perfect? Can we show beyond a shadow of a doubt that it's going to work? Of course we can't. There's no way. Even if the machine were flawless, even if it were perfect, there could be a fatal flaw waiting for us on Mars. One sharp pointy rock in the wrong place. You know, it is a dangerous thing that we're doing. It's dangerous when we launch it tomorrow, it's going to be dangerous the day when it lands, and it was dangerous the day we proposed it to NASA. Welcome to the Mars business.

P2K: Every good manager says that the team they're working with is the world's greatest dream team ever. What makes this team so unique to you?

Steve Squyres: I can actually provide a different vantage point, because I'm not, I don't work at JPL. I'm not a JPL employee, I've never worked at JPL. I have worked with JPL since the late 70s. I worked on Voyager, I worked on Magellan, I worked on the Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Fly-by mission, Mars Observer, Mars Odyssey, I was on the review board for MGS. I've probably worked on eight or ten JPL missions altogether. This is the strongest team that I have ever seen and it's strong in a bunch of different ways.

A wonderful mix of youth and experience, including some very experienced young people. I mean, you've got guys like Rob Manning, Richard Cook, people who are not old guys, by any sense, but who have a lot of experience because they started real young at JPL and they're stars. I mean, they're standouts in their field, and despite the fact that they're still very young and vigorous, have got lots of experience.

You've got some engineers, I mean people who have been at this thirty, thirty-five, forty years, some of them working actively, daily, on the mission, others working sort of in advisory roles.

I remember a review - I don't remember what it was, it was some review that we were in - and I spent eight hours sitting between Bill Layman and Ted Kopf, who were two JPL engineers, each of them with thirty, thirty-five, forty years of experience. By the end of the day I felt like my head was going to explode, I had just absorbed so much information listening to those two guys over eight hours.

This is a mission that needs to succeed. JPL needs this mission to succeed, NASA needs this mission to succeed. When you're in a situation like that, if you need somebody good, you get them. It's been a unique opportunity. Anytime we need something we ask for it and we get it. We need a supercomputer, boom, we get a supercomputer. We need the world's largest wind tunnel, we get the world's largest wind tunnel. You need the world's biggest vacuum chamber - yeah, sure, how long do you need it for? World's best aerospace engineers, you know, whatever you need, we've gotten. We may not succeed, but if we do not succeed it's not because we didn't get the people or the money that we needed. We cannot use those as excuses.

P2K: And yet, back in New York and that taxi cab, you said, well... and Wayne Lee said something: "I don't know if I can do this again. It's fantastic and it's wonderful and it's going to do great science. I don't know if I'd do it again."

Steve Squyres: I don't know if I'd do it again. I'll tell you, if we succeed, I'll never do something like this again. It just consumes you. I mean, this has been my life for seven and a half years. My wife and daughter are right over there. I have promised them, and my older daughter, too, that if this thing gets to Mars, we get one rover on the surface for one day, Daddy's never going to be a PI again, that's it. I have put too much into this. It's a wonderful experience, this is the adventure of a lifetime. And I mean that in the most literal sense of those words. That's not hyperbole. This is the adventure of a lifetime. But it drains you, you know, you put everything into it. Everything that I have spent my professional life on for the last seven and a half years is sitting on top of that rocket. It takes a lot out of you.

P2K: You've just said how incredibly difficult it is to do this. So why did you do this?

Steve Squyres: Ah. You know, I've been intrigued by Mars and the question of life there, and water there, for more than twenty years. I've been intrigued by exploration, wanted to be an explorer since I was six years old. This is my big shot. This is it. This is the biggest, best thing that I know how to put together, and I've wanted to do something like this for as long as I can remember, practically.

I'll tell you, it's an amazing mixture of emotions, feelings, that I'm going through right now. Especially this morning (June 8), I got up at like four, four-thirty, and drove out to the pad while it was still dark, it was all lit up with searchlights, and driving up Lighthouse Road and looking at that thing, and it just, you know, the mix of emotions - pride, relief that we actually got to the pad because, God knows, there were times when it didn't look like we would, certainly anxiety over the launch and everything else that we still have ahead of us. We still haven't done the hardest stuff yet.

It's an unbelievable feeling.

P2K: What was it that got you started when you were six years old?

Steve Squyres: I don't know what it was. When I was really young, for one thing I always loved maps. When I was a little kid I used to sit down and go through the atlas. And I remember the atlas that we had at home when I was young - this is back in the early sixties, and the atlas was probably fifteen, twenty years old - there were still spots on the maps that were blank, in a few little places, you know, places where they just didn't have the details. Remote parts of the Himalayas and a few other spots. And that just, somehow the appeal of that, the fact that nobody knows what's there, that just always had a tremendous appeal to me, that there were places that nobody had been to yet. And by the time I got into college and was starting to really get serious about doing science and realizing I wanted to pursue a scientific career, the blank spots had all been filled in. This planet is known. And while geology definitely intrigued me and presented wonderful problem solving opportunities, I always sort of had the sense on this planet that all the really best problems had already been figured out. You know, the really meaty stuff, the really good stuff, had sort of been worked out. And I'd look at what was there and it sort of felt like filling in the details. But in the planets, out in the solar system, there are just huge blank canvases to be filled in. The combination of wanting to really go after big science questions and do it where you can go someplace that nobody's ever been before, that to me is a powerful, sort of heady combination. Sending these rovers - I mean, I'd go myself if I could. I'd go myself in a heartbeat, but we've got these beautiful machines going instead, and we send our hopes and aspirations with them and we'll see what we see.

P2K: The guys at Cornell and a whole bunch of other folks at NASA are really going out of their way to get kids involved, get strong education programs. Why do you divert attention and energy from the science, the mission, to outreach?

Steve Squyres: We're spending eight hundred million dollars on these things, of taxpayer money, and what we have on this launch pad here is an incredibly powerful tool for training future generations of explorers, roboticists, scientists, engineers, people who are going to make missions possible that will make this look like child's play. We have people on this planet now who are the next generation of explorers and we can use something like this to get them ready to do that job. And so from the level of college students down to elementary school we try to find ways to use this mission to get people interested, to get people turned on, to get people engaged in the kind of stuff that we're doing, so that ten, twenty, thirty years down the road there are going to be people who can follow after this and do better.

P2K: The RAT is being built a few blocks from the World Trade Center. The development of the mission is taking place in a world full of terrorism, war in Iraq, and you're going off to explore a planet far away. Why do that at a time when there is so much turmoil, so much stuff that could engage bright people in solving problems down here on Earth?

Steve Squyres (after a long pause): Why keep painting paintings? Why compose symphonies? Why continue to do any kind of scientific research? Why keep playing baseball? We keep doing all the things that humans do. Yeah, the world's got its problems right now. But the worst thing that I can imagine doing in the face of the threat of terrorism would be letting it change what we're about as a nation, what we're about as a people. It'd be the worst way to react to this. We keep going.

P2K: You've got storm clouds behind you. What's going to happen tomorrow?

Steve Squyres: We're gonna try again. It was real stormy yesterday afternoon, we woke up this morning it was beautiful, clear blue sky. The clouds came in and they came in - you know, I think if the clouds had come in a half an hour later than they did we probably would have gotten out of here today. So tomorrow maybe they'll come in a little later and we'll go to Mars.

P2K: What's a day after ten years?

Steve Squyres: I'll wait it out for weeks. I'm fine. I've been to lots of rocket launches. They almost always get delayed. If it takes time, it takes time. I've got all the time in the world.