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From Earth to Mars, Cornell astronomer tells Clarkson alumni getting there is a people story

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POTSDAM — You can’t launch to Mars anytime you want.

But if you plan on exploring the surface of the solar system’s second smallest planet, fourth from the sun researcher, astronomer and “voice of NASA’s mission to Mars” Steven Squyres is the man you want on your team.

Mr. Squyres was the keynote speaker for Clarkson University’s Third Annual Alumni Association Reunion Keynote Speaker Series Saturday at the campus’s Student Center Forum.

The Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University, Ithaca, and the principal investigator for the science payload on the Mars Exploration Rover Project, Mr. Squyres entertained and educated alumni, students and members of the public about the project that has been exploring the surface of Mars for more than 10 years.

Using images of the planet’s cold, quiet and dune-like surface provided by two high-tech robotic rovers named Spirit and Opportunity, Mr. Squyres displayed excitement in the successes and failures that occurred over the 34-month period that the team of 4,000 people had to design and build the two rovers.

“The toughest constraint we had was schedule — that was by far the worst,” Mr. Squyres said. “Our schedule was literally driven by the alignment of planets. You can’t launch to Mars anytime you want. You have to wait for the planets to line up in just the right position.”

Once the planets are aligned, there is a three-week window to launch the rovers. If that window closes, it doesn’t open again for 26 more months.

“We just didn’t have enough time from when NASA said, ‘here is the money, ready, set, go,’” Mr. Squyres said. “We had 34 months to do the (Rover) design, build it, test it, calibrate it, validate it, get it on top of the rocket and get it ready to fly.”

And at $1 million a day, Mr. Squyres said no one was going to keep the project alive for another 26 months. The team had to launch in June and July 2003 or they wouldn’t be going to Mars at all, he said.

Both rovers, first Spirit, followed by Opportunity, were launched that summer within weeks of one another; however, what wasn’t sent into space was the software that would allow the rovers to drive along the surface of Mars once they landed. In fact, it wasn’t even created.

“So while it was on its 300-million-mile, seven-month journey to Mars, we wrote the software for driving and then five months into the mission, launched the software at the speed of light, by radio, and it caught up with the vehicle and it installed itself,” Mr. Squyres said. “It was scary. I was terrified. None of that software existed when we launched it.”

But that kind of chance — that kind of need to explore things — had been with Mr. Squyres since he was a boy, he said.

After speaking with the crowd Saturday, Mr. Squyres told the Times he was always greatly intrigued by exploration, from space to the depth of the Earth’s seas.

He grew up watching NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions on television and dove into books about the explorers Magellan and Columbus.

“In fact at Cornell I co-teach a course on the history of exploration. Not space exploration, just exploration in general,” Mr. Squyres said. “I just love that stuff.”

He added that while in college he would explore the peaks of the Adirondacks, adding that he saw geology as a way to combine all those passions.

“But what I discovered was the geologists who have been crawling over the earth for over the past couple of hundred years have done a pretty good job of figuring stuff out, and trying to do geology on other planets and trying to explore other worlds where maps don’t exist — where the questions haven’t even been posed, let alone answered,” Mr. Squyres said.

The craters covering Mars’ surface that Opportunity has been and continues to investigate today all have been named after famous ships of exploration: Eagle, Endurance, Vostok, Erebus, Beagle and Victoria.

“That was something that I really wanted to do, to have a sense of the history captured in what we are trying to do,” Mr. Squyres said.

But with all the breathtaking images sent back by the high-tech rovers — sunsets on a dead planet’s horizon, the two lunar eclipses with Mars’ moons, Phobos and Deimos, which has never before been witnessed — it was back here on Earth where Mr. Squyres said his fondest memories of the project were born.

“I have gotten to see this project from end to end, but to me, the part that I will remember best and treasure most … was the last 18 months before we launched,” Mr. Squyres said. “There was a time when I swear that nobody in the world believed that we could actually do this.”

There was a shared sense of struggle with the team looking to reach Mars; Mr. Squyres said his fondest memory was that smart, talented, passionate group, working to achieve something that had never been done before.

“Seeing that concept become reality — I remember the first time I actually saw the Spirit Rover drive, it brought tears to my eyes, in the literal sense, I was crying — that’s something I will never forget,” Mr. Squyres said. “The best part was back when we didn’t know if it was going to work; we had that belief that we could make it work. That was the best part of the whole thing.”

“It is partly a science story, partly an engineering story, but ultimately it is a people story,” Mr. Squyres added. “It comes down to those 4,000 people who believed and got this job done.”

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