Steven Squyres talk, National Portrait Gallery
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Steven Squyres talk, National Portrait Gallery



Well this is a genuinely weird experience. [Laughter] Standing here having a picture
of me taken in front of a picture me is just kind of strange. There are several things that I like about
this picture and a few that I don’t, too, this kind of weird pose, but anyway. You know, I live in a little town, middle
of nowhere in upstate New York and yet at the same time I have this enormous privilege
of being the lead scientist on an $800 million dollar NASA mission to mars. And so I spend a lot of time on the telephone. I mean I just spend hours and hours and hours. It's not uncommon for me to spend six or seven
hours a day on the phone with people in the jet propulsion laboratory and that's what
I'm doing in this picture. If you look at my speaker phone, which is
right there, the little red light is glowing, okay, because I'm on the phone. And I can't remember. I remember the picture being taken. They set the camera up on a tripod and sort
of ran out of the room so they'd be around the corner when it shot, so they’re standing
right around the corner there. And we were having a conference call and you
can tell by the look on my face something bad had happened. I don't remember what it was. 2005, they're still going 10-years, no, still
going five years later so it couldn’t have been too bad. But this is just a very typical moment for
me because I participate in this mission. I do most of it remotely. And I have to, you know, make my contributions
from 2500 miles away and that's how I do it. Another thing I like about this photo is that
it's a panoramic image. The thing that is special to me about that
is that is what got me started in this business of Mars exploration in the first place was
building a panoramic imager. There's an instrument on the rovers called
Pan Cam that I first started working on in 1987, so 23 years ago, that eventually became
part of the payload for this rover and eventually did get to Mars. And this image is taken using a very similar
technique where it takes individual frames and sort of seams them together. And we take lots and lots of pictures just
like this. The other thing that in fact I hadn't even
thought about this until I saw this picture was that what got me started in the whole
space exploration business. I was an undergraduate student at Cornell. I went to school at Cornell. And in 1977 I took a course, it was a graduate-level
course that was offered at the time on the results of the Viking mission to Mars. I was a geologist at the time and I was interested
in geology but somehow, you know, geology of the earth just wasn't grabbing me, you
know. I hadn't found what I wanted to do. So I signed up for this course on the Viking
mission to Mars and because it was a graduate-level course, we were expected to write a term paper
that was going to be some kind of piece of original research. And so two or three weeks in the semester
I thought I’d better start thinking about my term paper. And so I got a key from a professor to a place
called the Mars Room at Cornell. And it was – this of course was before the
internet, before CD-rom's, all the images from the Viking orbiters were distributed
on these big rolls of photographic paper. And you would slice them up and put them into
binders, and this Mars Room was where the images were kept. And I had never seen a picture of Mars before. So I went over there, I figured I’ll flip
through pictures for 15 or 20 minutes and try to come up with an idea for a term paper. I was in the room for four hours and I walked
out of that room knowing exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And that room was in this building right here. So there's a lot of history in this for me. It was interesting to look at this and try
to – it was 2005. 2005 was what I guessed. It was interesting to look at this picture
and try to guess, you know, exactly what year it was. There are some clues, you know. There are certain pictures of my daughters
that are on the wall and others that aren’t yet because they haven’t been taken. So that was a good clue. You know, which brand laptop I had and how
much gray there was not in my hair. [Laughter] Actually, what I think the gray
came from was too many conference calls like this. Anyhow those are just some reflections on
the image. It's a wonderful experience to be able to
come here and sort of be hanging in the same room with a few Nobel laureates and presidents
and that sort of stuff, you know. It's kind of cool. So, anyway, I appreciate the invitation to
be here the chance to actually see this photo and to talk to you folks. Thank you so much for your reflection. And Dr. Green, would you like to engage in
a conversation about the science? So Jim, I hope that you took note of what
she said, I heard the words “shoestring budget.” [Laughter] This is the guy I get my money
from at NASA headquarters so. And it works, the two rovers that we have,
our geologists on Mars. It’s really been exciting and it’s just
been wonderful that they have survived. And I’m sure that surprised you. It has. You know, I thought that we’d get… you
know I thought we were going to get six months, maybe even a year out of them. But seven years? No. No way. In fact, I can actually prove, you may not
know this story. I can prove that we didn't expect them to
last this long. So here's the thing: inside the rovers there's
a device called the transponder. It's the radio, essentially, okay? And it’s used to communicate with Earth. And you can’t change the station, okay? You can’t vary the frequency. It's locked in. We built two flight transponders and then
we had two spares. Million dollars apiece. And they’re sitting around on a shelf at
JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory]. So the next Mars mission which is going to
come twenty six months after us, next Mars mission, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, comes
to us and says hey, this is after we launched, can we have one of your spare transponders? We said sure, take it, we're not going to
be operating by the time you guys get to Mars. Now Spirit and MRO [Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter]
connect to Earth on the same frequency because of that. And it’s a colossal pain in the neck because
you have to worry about, you know this one's out of sight yet, exactly. We never would have given him our spare transponder! So I can prove, I can prove that we didn't
expect them to last more than twenty-six months. [Laughter] Well, what I like about this is
that I believe you have your kids here. Oh yeah. When you look at it, you see that next generation. Perhaps the next generation of Mars explorers
are in this room now. Yep. So what would you say about the future of
planetary science? You know, I honestly think… I'm proud of the science that we've done. I’m proud of the discoveries that we've
made. But I honestly think that the most important
legacy of this mission could turn out to be the young people who saw this, saw us jumping
up and down like we just won the Super Bowl when we landed it and all of that stuff. You did. You did. And decide on the basis of that that they
maybe want to pursue a career in engineering or technology or science. I mean, these Rovers were built by people
like me who grew up during the ‘60s, watching Mercury, and Gemini, and Apollo on TV and
dreaming of sending spaceships to Mars someday. And now we do. And the fondest hope that I've ever had for
this mission is that there's going to be, you know, young people who look at what we
did, and they see the rovers, and what they’re doing, and they think, wow that's really cool
but, you know, I bet I can do better. That would be the best thing I think that
can possibly come out of a mission. I mean, water on Mars, yep that's good, okay,
and I'm proud of that. But I think some of the other stuff may actually
be more important. I agree with you, it’s important. I mean, what’s going on now in planetary
science is really quite a renaissance. You really have quite a few missions and
you have quite a few opportunities, and revolutions in terms of other our other standing Voyageur,
evolution of our solar system, how our planets are forming, and how they moved in time. Many of those concepts we have no idea about. You're right but, you know, I think maybe
the best is still ahead of us. I do too. I mean, we haven’t brought rocks back from
Mars yet. We haven't discovered life anywhere yet. And a lot of people think that we're going
to someday. That's right. You know, there's maybe an ocean on Europa,
one of the moons of Jupiter. There's so much out there and I just feel
like the most exciting missions are the ones that are still ahead of us. Yeah. But if this can help get people interested
and… Not everyone is going to grow up to be an
astronaut or grow up and work on a mission to Mars. But they might choose to go into a technical
career, into a scientific career that could lead to more basic medical research that could
lead to new technological breakthroughs, new consumer products. I mean, all kinds of things that the country
and the world need. And people get inspired to go into careers
like this and then they can just go in any direction that they want. And we can help to make that happen. Yeah, that’s a really good point because
it’s not just the science and engineering of putting the rovers together, how they operate,
how they receive their power, and they have to survive over the night, and they have to
survive over the winter. All those engineering challenges in another
world, it is really quite astounding to be able to overcome that. And that takes a whole category of engineers
to do that. You know I wrote a book about the project,
and in an appendix of the book I tried to list the names of all the people at least
up to that point who had worked on the mission. And there are more than 4,000 names. That's the book, yep, that’s the book. That's the draft dust jacket that my publisher
had just sent me that helped me to date the image. But yeah, there are more than 4,000 names
on that list. And it’s actually all kinds of people too,
you know? It's scientists and it’s engineers, but
it's also security guards who watched the rover as it was being shipped across the country,
and lawyers and accountants. I mean, we were spending a million bucks a
day. We needed a lot of lawyers and accountants. [Laughter] I keep going coming back to the
money thing. Maybe because Jim’s here. Well it reinforces what we get from the public. It’s really, you know, we are on the hook,
we are accountable to provide a well-known planetary program and we want to get the most
out of what we have. Yeah, granted we invest in technology. 99% of all the money we invest, it’s all
right here. It’s in the people and everything else. But, it is a fabulous opportunity to leave
something incredibly important for the next generation. I always felt that one of our most important
responsibilities was conveying the results of our mission to the public. I mean, NASA does a lot of wonderful things. NASA does cosmology, they do gamma-ray spectroscopy,
you know, try explaining gamma-ray spectroscopy to a second-grader. It’s hard, okay? [Laughter] But this, it's a robot. It’s looking at rocks. It's not that complicated, okay? And so what I felt was the almost unique accessibility
of this mission compared to a lot of other things that go on gave us not just a special
opportunity but a special responsibility to communicate our results to the public. Because something like this is going to attract
attention that is disproportionate to the magnitude of its budget. It just gets a lot of attention. And you can use that in a productive way. You can use it to tell a story about how science
really works. I remember some of the early press briefings,
you know. Here’s the way how NASA press conferences
usually work. The way they usually work is some discovery
has been made and it's been sent to a journalist, been peer reviewed, and about to be published. And then they get a bunch of experts and they
sit all in a row and you go from left to right and everybody talks about the discovery that
was just made. In our case, we landed and they wanted a press
conference that day. And we had just seen the pictures an hour
ago. And they wanted one the next day, and the
next day, and the next day. And people had to get comfortable with the
idea of a bunch of NASA scientists standing up and saying we don't know what's going on. [Laughter] We’re confused. And initially the news… some people were
a little uncomfortable with that, with us getting up there and say and we're confused. But thing that I realized was that it was
a chance to show people how science really works. A lot of people think of science as this static
body of knowledge that you read from a text book, or maybe you read about in a NASA press
release when it has all been discovered. And science isn’t like that. Science is this joyful process of exploration
and discovery and you get something new every day. And so we could get up there and we can get
up at a press briefing and say, “there's all these weird little round things in the
soil. We don't know what they are. Here are some ideas” – multiple working
hypotheses, right? – “here are some ideas for what they might be. And we're going to drive over there and we're
going to try something out there that will maybe tell us if our idea is right” – testing
our hypothesis. “Okay. Come back tomorrow. [Laughter] Tune in tomorrow and we'll have
something new for you.” And it was a chance for people to share in
that process of exploration and discovery. And, you know, this has continued to go on. I mean, we still get enormous number of hits
on our website. There are tens of thousands of people worldwide. I mean, we know this from looking at our web
traffic. They get up and they make their tea and they
get their corn flakes and then they turn on the computer and they hit the website to see
what happened on Mars yesterday. And you know they're… you can go back through
the history of exploration and it used to be that explorers would sail off over the
horizon and maybe come back a year or two or three years later with wonderful tales
to tell but everybody back home had to kind of wait for them to get back. The beautiful thing about this is we can actually
take everybody along with us. I'll tell you this this is a dirty little
secret. There's a community worldwide of amateur scientists
who download our images and process them and have web sites where they put all these things
up. And the funny part is some of them are in
Europe. I'm on the east coast of the United States. My colleagues on the mission are out on the
west coast. So these guys in Europe frequently see these
pictures long before I do, and three hours later the folks at JPL see them. So what I'll do is I'll get up and I make
my cup of tea and my corn flakes and flip open my laptop and I'll go to the website
that these guys run. And they've already taken the images, made
color composites, made mosaics, made panoramas. Nobody is going to be awake at JPL for three
hours, and I’ve already got the panoramas in front me because we’ve got amateurs processing
the images over in Holland. It’s great! And that’s because JPL has an operations
team that lives on Mars time. Oh. So what’s the difference between Earth time
and Mars time? Because Mars time is another dedicated group
of people that are behind the scenes. That was an interesting experience because
for the first four months after we landed, everybody on the project team, scientists,
engineers, everybody on the team all lived on Martian time. And the Martian day is not 24 hours long. It is 24 hours and 39 minutes long. You might think it would be cool to be able
to sleep in the next 39 minutes each day. It’s not. So the way this work is let's say our daily
operations planning meeting is at noon today. Then tomorrow it’s 12:39. Day after that it's at 1:18. And it marches around and two and a half weeks
later it's in the middle of the night. Okay, and then, I've got two rovers on Mars. I take my science team and split it in half. So I got two different teams, all of them
living on Mars time but in two different Marian time zones. Okay and if you're working on one rover and
you want to switch to the other, you get Martian jet lag. I mean, the two landing sites were on opposite
sides of the planet. They’re 12 hours apart. If you wanted to switch Rovers, it was like
getting on a plane and going India. You had to switch your schedule around 12
hours. Yeah, that was a kind of weird experience. I mean, in our operations area we had blackout
curtains on all the windows so that you couldn't, you know, tell whether it's daytime or nighttime
outside. All the clocks were on Mars time, no Earth-time
clocks. It was like working at a casino. You can’t tell if it is daytime or nighttime
outside, you know. We had blackout curtains in our apartments. We had Mars time watches. Somebody went to Walmart and bought a whole
bunch of clock radios and then hacked the electronics so that they would run on Mars
time so I had a Mars time alarm clock in my apartment. We have smart people. They can do stuff like that. Yeah, but the whole Mars time thing, that
was that was a very strange experience. And the fact that of the matter is that these
people are really dedicated. There ought to be 4,000. If you really care about this mission, there
ought to be 4,000 pictures in the National Portrait Gallery because there are 4,000 people
who worked on this, you know. And I think the thing the thing that unites
this team more than anything else is just a passion for what we do. It is so much fun to do what we do, you know? It is just so… despite the look on this
guy's face, he's having fun. He's having fun. So yeah. Thank you so much, this was wonderful. Thank you Jim. [Applause] Do you think you could take some
questions? Sure, absolutely. Can you recall what it was looking at the
Viking photographs that struck you at the time? How specific was it, or we can do better than
this on Mars? Yeah, the thing that struck me… I was working with the Viking orbiter images,
the pictures taken from orbit that show the entire planet. And, you know, I was a fledgling terrestrial
geologist and I saw stuff that I recognized. When I was – the summer between when I was
a senior in high school and my freshman year at Cornell, I spent some time on a glacial
geology expedition in northwestern British Columbia and southeast Alaska. And I saw features their call rock glaciers
which are formed when you have ice and rock mix together that can flow. And I saw stuff in those pictures of Mars
that looked just like that. I saw, you know, dendritic valley systems
that had to have been carved by liquid water. And so you’ve got this place that is just
cold and dry and desolate these days but it's got these clues that in the past it really
was different. And that intrigued me. But it was the Earth-like, the ancient Earth-like
features that really caught my eye. Yeah. I’m sure this depends on the time of the
year and how much you get, but in general, how far can you travel in a day? Okay, that. How far you can go in a day? You're right, it depends on how much power
that you have. It depends very sensitively on how difficult
the terrain is. Our all-time record, all-time best, we will
probably never top this, there was one drive we did 204 meters in one day with Opportunity. I felt pretty good about that one. These days, Opportunity is routinely doing
a hundred meters a day which is really good. Spirit, I think Spirit’s all-time record
is 125. In fact, there was a stretch – this was
fun – there was a stretch of time when opportunity was trying to get from Eagle Crater to Endurance
Crater and Spirit was trying to get from Bonneville Crater to the Columbia Hills. We were basically having rover drag races
where the teams were competing, these guys. Because all we were trying to do is drive,
both of them, and we were just competing to see who could cover the most mileage in a
day. After Spirit, after Spirit broke the right
front wheel, you know, a good day was 5 or 10 meters. So it really depends. The Spirit landing site is much tougher for
driving than the Opportunity site. And so Opportunity’s got like 24 kilometers
on the odometer now whereas Spirit’s got about 7. So when you upload the commands on that big
drive, it goes like this? Yep, pedal to the metal, I mean at the full
voltage all the motors… no, it’s faster than that. It’s faster than that, Jim. [Laughter]. Pedal to the metal, full voltage to all the
wheels, you get 6 centimeters a second. Pretty slow, yeah. But is there anything that you would want
to do at night that you couldn’t do during the day? Yeah, there are some science objectives that
are specifically enabled by working at night. There are processes that only work at night
like condensation of frost on rocks and on rover surfaces. I mean, we have learned this by taking pictures
of our solar arrays at night. You can see, you can see frost deposits. There is science that you can do by looking
at the Martian sky at night, by looking at that. You have stars of a known brightness and you
can look at how bright they look and figure out how much condensates there are in the
atmosphere at that particular time of night and so forth. So yeah, there is science specifically enabled
at night. We have done some nighttime science with our
rovers because during the summertime there's enough power during the day to fully charge
the batteries and so you've got those batteries charged during the night so you can use those
batteries and wake up during the night. Yeah? What instruments are you working on right
now for MSL? I am a team member for a couple of the instruments. One is called the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer
which measures the chemistry of elements, elemental chemistry of rocks on the surface. One is called SAM, which is probably the most
complicated instrument on the rover. It lives inside the rover and it does very
detailed analyses of organic molecules. Now having said that, I will tell you that
if you talk to the principal investigators, the lead scientists for either one of those
instruments, and said that I was working on those instruments, they would laugh at you. [Laughter] Okay? It's all they can do to get me to show up
for an occasional team meeting because I'm too busy with the other rover. So I haven't had time for MSL that I would
have liked and that I expected to at this point because there's these two other rovers
that I care about. Yeah, but you were also were in such unique
set of experiences and it’s a matter of time that you’ll be more and more involved
and they know that. I'm going to be the last guy to turn out the
lights when the last rover dies, okay? [Laughter] I started on this in 1987, I am
seeing it through. I don’t care what that other rover can do.

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