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Credit: Cornell University
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Steven Squyres by David Zierler on 2021 June 10,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Steven Squyres discusses: taking Chief Scientist position at Blue Origin; current interests in planetary science including the shift toward sample return missions; changes to human and robotic spaceflight; private enterprise’s emerging role; family background; decision to attend Cornell undergrad in geology; how a course on the results of the Viking mission influenced his decision to pursue robotic exploration of the solar system; involvement in underwater exploration; PhD at Cornell under Carl Sagan and Joe Veverka for the Voyager project; details of the Voyager mission; dissertation work on the geology and geophysics of Ganymede and Callisto with Gene Shoemaker; postdoc and later job with Pat Cassen and Ray Reynolds at NASA Ames; working on Mars with Michael Carr; reaction to the Challenger tragedy; decision to take position at Cornell and to study the Martian surface; 10 years of proposals to NASA, including one that led to Spirit and Opportunity; Martian habitablity; question of how life arises from non-living material; details of his approach to the Martian geological exploration project; discussion of Spirit and Opportunity’s “honorable” demises; experience as rover’s Primary Investigator (PI) and his internal management strategies; communicating information to the press; reflections on the nature of science; conclusions from Spirit and Opportunity missions; involvement with the Magellan mission; work on the Cassini imaging system; chairing NASA’s planetary decadal survey 2013-2023, recommending Europa Clipper and Perseverance; chairing the NASA Advisory Council; writing Roving Mars; stories of innovative problem-solving from the rover missions; meteorite science; reflections on his time as faculty at Cornell; transition to Blue Origin; and his long-term view of potential space occupation and habitation. Toward the end of the interview, Squyres reflects on the question of whether other lifeforms exist and on the importance of experimentation to answer that question.
OK, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is June 10th, 2021. I am delighted to be here with Dr. Steven W. Squyres. Steve, it’s great to see you. Thank you for joining me today.
Yeah, I’m glad to be here.
Steve, to start, would you please tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
Yes. I am Chief Scientist at Blue Origin.
When did you go emeritus at Cornell?
I went emeritus at Cornell about a year and a half ago, so in the early fall — in the fall of 2019.
Was this relatively early to go emeritus? In other words, would you have stayed on later if the Blue Origin opportunity didn’t present itself when it did?
Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, I intended [laugh] to be a productive scientist for years to come. But after the Mars rover mission ended, I’d been at Cornell, if you include my years there as a student, about 40 years. And I was just — I wanted a change, I wanted something different, and so the move to Blue Origin made sense for me. I retired from Cornell rather than resigning, which means I get to keep my email address [laugh] and use the library, and stuff like that. But, yeah, I’m a full-time employee of Blue Origin now.
What, if any, connections do you retain with Cornell? Do you still sit on thesis committees? Do you still interact with students at all?
I don’t anymore. I did that for many, many years. Blue Origin is a fascinating, very intense place to work. It uses all my professional time and energy. And I still of course have friends and colleagues at Cornell, and very fond memories of the place. But I’m Blue Origin now.
Just a snapshot in time, more broadly in the field, what’s interesting in planetary sciences these days?
Oh, my goodness. [laugh]
[laugh] What’s not interesting, I should say? [laugh]
[laugh] Yeah, yeah, it’s a short list. Well, of course, there continues to be a huge focus on Mars. Mars continues to be an object of great fascination, and has been of better than a century, and I’m sure will be for centuries to come.
There’s a lot of attention on what are sometimes referred to as ocean worlds in the outer solar system, so places that might have oceans — if you want to call them that — large volumes of liquid water beneath their surface. Europa is probably one of those. Enceladus is probably one of those. And, of course, the habitability questions there become very, very interesting.
Another thing is that there is an increasing shift in planetary science towards sample return missions, bringing samples back and putting them in laboratories. There’s a huge effort underway right now to collect well-chosen samples from Mars, for example, and bring them back for analysis. Sample return missions are tremendously powerful because when you bring back samples, the scientific payload is essentially the combined power of all the Earth’s laboratories for decades to come. It really, really is a powerful concept. So, those are some of the things that are exciting to me now.
Insofar as where you slide in in Blue Origin, what is the basic divide between applied science and basic research?
Well, here at Blue Origin, everything that I do is applied science. We are not a scientific research organization. We are a space infrastructure company, if you will, and we are trying to establish a powerful human presence in space, particularly cislunar space. So, the Earth-Moon system is really our focus now.
The long-term vision of the company is millions of people living and working in space. That’s not a 10-year strategic goal. That’s a century-scale strategic goal. But we’re working steadfastly towards that, and it’s a fascinating new set of challenges.
Would you say that your academic affiliation has changed in the transition from Cornell to Blue Origin? In other words, if you would’ve called yourself an astronomer or somebody interested in astrophysics —
— to what extent do those terms now apply or not?
When I was at Cornell, I considered myself a planetary scientist. At Blue Origin, I have to broaden that to be more what I would call a space scientist. One of the fascinating things about my job at Blue Origin is that I have to climb a whole bunch of learning curves to do my job and do it proficiently. There’s much more engineering involved in what I do than there was before. There is a whole host of different scientific problems, new physics I have to learn, new geoscience I have to learn at the Moon; all kinds of stuff.
And it’s good for my brain, right? I’m 65 years old. I don’t want to retire. [laugh] I want to stay active. I want to stay vigorous. I want to be stimulated. And, boy, this job really does it.
Given your long tenure and experience with NASA, in what ways has NASA’s missions since the late ’70s changed, and in what ways has it remained the same?
That’s a good question. I think the changes have come primarily on the human spaceflight side of things. If you go back to when I first got started in the business, the space shuttle was under development but had not launched yet. We went through shuttle, and then we went through the International Space Station. Now, the focus is on Artemis. So, there have been several shifts in NASA’s focus for human spaceflight.
In robotic spaceflight, I feel like we’ve just gotten better and better, and stronger and stronger, and stayed focused on very much the same sorts of scientific questions. Whether you’re talking about astrophysics, the development of the great observatories, planetary exploration, the progression from flyby missions to orbiter missions, lander missions, rover missions, sample-return missions, we’re focused on very much the same sorts of interesting problems. It’s just that we’re getting better and better at it.
I certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression that planetary science has not undergone changes. It’s been changing very dramatically, but in a much more linear fashion.
In the way that 40 years ago, an endeavor like Blue Origin would’ve been unimaginable, what do you see —
— as the rough breakdown in terms of the scientific, economic, and even political advances that make it a reality today?
I’m not quite sure I understand your question.
Meaning that what has happened in the intervening 40 years where NASA was the only game in town, and now you have private enterprise that’s capable of doing these things.
Right. The technology for building and launching big rockets, significant launch vehicles, has advanced enormously over the course of my life. I was born before Sputnik.
I was too young to remember that. But I do remember Alan Shepard’s flight. I vividly remember John Glenn’s flight. And, in those days, the kind of launch vehicles that were required to do that sort of thing, and the amount of investment that was required to do a Saturn V, for example, was something that really at that time only governments could handle.
But as the technology has matured, as technical problems have been solved, as new innovations like landing boosters have come along, what you’re finding is that the ability to access space, to build rockets, to launch them, to get to space, has broadened in a couple of ways. It’s certainly broadened internationally. There are way more countries capable of sending things into space on their own today than there were back when it was just the United and the Soviet Union.
But well-financed private companies can do it now too. It’s certainly is not routine, though we’re trying to make it that way. But it’s becoming more accessible.
Where are issues that are common in any other corporate endeavor part of your world? Do you think about line items and budgets? Do you think about —
— what might be profitable in the long-term, or is this more like Bell Labs in its heyday?
Oh, no, we’re running a business. We’re running a business and, yeah, sure, profit matters. Responsible [laugh] management matters. Careful corporate decisions as to where you put your technology investment really matter. But we’re doing such great stuff.
You look at a company like Blue Origin or SpaceX, or you can name any number of them. They’re run as businesses, but we’re doing things that have never been done before, and that’s what’s fun and fascinating about it.
So where are you hierarchically? Who do you report to, and who reports to you?
Nobody reports to me. [laugh] I’m the Chief Scientist for the company. Organizationally, I’m within our Advanced Developments Programs office. That’s where most of the new ideas arise from.
But it’s an unusual position within the company. I think it says a lot for Blue that when I went and talked to them, they were immediately enthusiastic about having someone who was a Chief Scientist on the payroll. Basically, anywhere that Blue Origin’s activities intersect with science is an opportunity for me to get in and contribute. So I’ve got this very broad portfolio of things that I help out with, and a lot of fascinating learning curves to climb.
Well, let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. Let’s go back to New Jersey. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about —
— them and where they’re from.
Yeah. My father, he’s 94 years old now, was born and raised in East Texas. Got his doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT. And let’s see, he went to work as a chemical engineer for DuPont shortly after he got his doctorate, which was about ’55, I guess.
And then around 1959, DuPont decided they ought to get a few of their smart, young engineers together, and look into these new-fangled computer things that were just [laugh] coming into existence at the time. So, my father was one of the very first software engineers in the world, and certainly at DuPont. That was what he did for many years.
My mother, who passed away at the age of 87, was a student in zoology at Wellesley. They met when they were both in college in the Boston area. She got a degree in zoology. She wound up not pursuing a career there. She was mostly looking after our family.
But I was very fortunate that both of my parents were scientifically trained. I was fascinated by science. At the age of 6 years old, I wouldn’t have told you I want to be a scientist. I would’ve told you that I am one. I just wasn’t a very good one at the time.
As I was growing up, I was fascinated by everything. For all the physical sciences questions, I’d go to my dad. For the life sciences questions, I’d go to my mom. And they just played a huge, huge, huge role in intellectual stimulation for a young kid who was interested but didn’t know much. They were just — it was a tremendous gift to me to have them as my parents.
Is your sense that in a different generation, your mom would not have been faced with the choice of career versus family? She would’ve pursued something in zoology?
Quite possibly, although, looking back on it, I think raising a family was very, very much what she wanted to do. She was extremely intelligent, very intellectually curious, and she later did have a career. She always loved books, loved reading, had a large collection of books. And when I was in high school, she went back to college, got a master’s degree in library science, and became a librarian. Her strongest passion was books.
Did your father involve you at all in his work? In other words, even as a small kid, did you understand what a working scientist did?
Well, he wasn’t a scientist. He was very much an engineer. His specialty was writing computer codes that modeled some of the big chemical processes that were used by DuPont. If you have a factory that makes Dacron fibers, you put in raw materials at one end, and fiber comes out the other, and there’s a whole lot of chemical engineering that happens along the way. He would write detailed physical and chemical models of all of those processes, and then you could turn some of the knobs in the software, see how things would change downstream, and use it to optimize the processes. So, that was the kind of thing that he did.
But he was very much scientifically trained. I, at the time, was more interested in science than I was in engineering. So, I didn’t tend to ask him a whole lot of questions about his work. But he was my key scientific collaborator in all of the experiments that I was doing when I was 6 and 8 and 10 and 12 and 14.
This was like chemistry sets, that kind of thing?
It was all kinds of things. I’ll give you an example. This is an example of an early interaction with my dad that was really quite formative for me. When I was 8 years old, for Christmas, my parents got me a three-inch Newtonian reflector telescope from Edmund Scientific in Barrington, New Jersey. I was tremendously excited. That was my Christmas gift.
I took it out, and this was late December, early January, middle of winter, freezing cold. I took it out in the front yard, and there was a stretch of about six nights, I got very lucky on a stretch of about six nights in a row where the sky was clear. The thing that I chose to concentrate on was Jupiter and its moons. I could look at it through the telescope, and I could see Jupiter, and the four moons.
I’d look one night, and there they’d be. And I’d draw what I saw, draw the planet, draw the positions of the moons. And then the next night, I’d go out, and Jupiter would look just the same, but the moons would be in different positions. Sometimes you’d only be able to see three of them, whatever. And I’d draw them. I did this night after night after night.
It was like this magical dance where these moons were moving around to a different place each night. And I knew their names: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. I knew the sizes of their orbits. But I couldn’t — you know, there was an aliasing problem. From night to night to night, they moved enough that I couldn’t tell which moon was which, and it was driving me crazy.
And I went to my dad, and I said, “Can you figure this out?” And he said, “Well, not really, just looking at these pictures. But I bet I could write a computer program that could figure it out for us.” I said, “OK, great.” So, he got out a ruler, and he digitized my data, you know, measured where the moons were. And, of course, they had an 8-year-old’s drawing errors and so forth. But I had gotten it about right.
And then he went into work, and in spare time, with punch cards he wrote some code, ran it, and thought he had it. So, he came home, and showed me. He had drawn these sinusoidal curves going down through my data, showing which moon he thought was which. And he said, “I think we got it all figured out.” I thought, “Oh, that’s great.”
And then he said, “And if I’m right, this is what it’ll look like tonight.” [laugh] And we went outside, and we set up the telescope, and they were just where his computer program had said they would be. The predictive power of science became just crystal clear to me at that moment. If you understood something well enough, you can make something that once seemed mysterious not only comprehensible, you could predict the future. And for an 8-year-old, this was a revelation. So, that was a big, big, big deal for me. And then, 15, 16 years later, I wrote my PhD thesis about two of those moons.
How mathematical was your approach, even as a kid? In other words, did you recognize intuitively that numbers were the language of these systems?
Yeah. Yeah, I got the sense, at least in the physical science stuff that I was doing, that measuring things mattered. That if you couldn’t describe it with math, maybe you didn’t understand it as well as you thought you did. The calibrating instruments was — OK, I’ll give you another example.
There was one summer I decided to build a weather station in the backyard, with a whole bunch of instruments, including an anemometer. And, so, I built my own anemometer. I built this spinning thing, with funnels for the cups, and I had to calibrate it. So, my good old dad again, we get in the family station wagon, we go out on Elm Street, the street that we lived on, and I hold the thing out the window, and I’d say, “OK, Dad, drive five miles an hour.”
And he’d drive up the street five miles an hour, and then back down the street five miles an hour, and I’d average the number of clicks. “OK, Dad, 10 miles an hour.” You know, we’d do it again, do it again. The neighbors are looking. “What the heck?” [laugh] But, yeah, it was — the importance of getting the numbers right was sort of obvious to me.
Did you have any opportunities to take classes at, like, the local community college, or to have special tutoring sessions with your teachers, or — ?
No, my — all my extracurricular scientific stuff was all with my parents.
Yeah, I had a laboratory set up at home. I had all kinds of experiments that I was constantly doing, observations of this, that and the other thing. I was really, really, really involved in doing my own sort of thing scientifically, and my parents were [laugh] very tolerant and, did a lot to help enable that. But it was really only at home.
Aside from Cornell, where else did you apply, particularly because you were sort of —
— in unchartered territory? Just Cornell?
Nowhere else. I’ll tell you exactly what happened. I was the oldest child. My parents didn’t like the idea of me going to college any place far from home. So, they said, “We want you to go to college to some place that’s no farther than 350 miles from home.”
It’s not as arbitrary as it sounds if you take, you know, a compass and draw a circle around New —
Oh, I know. I had —
— Jersey, it goes from Dartmouth to Duke and —
Yeah, I had the five-hour rule. That was my parents —
— the five-hour rule.
Yeah, yeah, I had 350 miles. And then, being an independent-minded young man, I decided I wasn’t going to go any closer than 100 miles.
[laugh] So, I had this annulus [laugh] centered around Wenonah, New Jersey that I had to choose from.
No Princeton for you?
That’s right, Princeton was ruled out. And then there were two other criteria. The other criteria were that I wanted to go to a really top research institution, and I wanted to be in a rural setting. Where I’d grown up in New Jersey was suburban to urban. I loved mountaineering. I love being outdoors.
I wanted to be some place where I was able to be with nature. And, so, when I applied all those criteria, it came down to Cornell and Dartmouth. That was it. [laugh] The whole thing was Cornell and Dartmouth.
And this was in the days before the common app, where everybody fills out basically the same college application. Each school had its own application, and I sent away for applications from Cornell and Dartmouth. Cornell’s was four pages long. Dartmouth’s was 32.
I applied to Cornell, and that was it. [laugh] I applied on early decision. I mean, I had backups in mind in case I didn’t get in, but I got in on early decision. And my dad and I went up and visited the place and loved it, and, of course, I went in summer. [laugh] But, yeah, it was the only school I applied to.
Now, you’re on a trajectory intellectually at this point where it seems like geophysics, astronomy, geology, planetary science, these are all within range. How did you settle on geology?
Ah, that was interesting. If you had asked me when I applied to Cornell what my field was going to be, I was going to be a biology major. That that was because I had a particularly inspiring biology teacher, advanced placement biology teacher, in high school who was also my track and cross-country coach. He was a really good coach and a really good teacher, and I enjoyed his biology classes very much. So that was the direction I was going.
But when I was, again, 8 years old — I guess that was a big year for me — I grew up in the flatlands of New Jersey, but when I was 8, my family took a family vacation to Rocky Mountain National Park at Colorado. It was first time I’d ever seen mountains, and I just fell in love with them. I fell in love with the mountains, with mountaineering, hiking, just being out in the mountains. It just meant everything to me, and did as much of that as I possibly could through all the years between 8 and 18.
Now, what happened was [laugh] I had a good guidance counselor in my high school, who came across a program that was run by the National Science Foundation where high school students could apply participate on scientific research projects. It was mostly open to students between their junior and senior years. There were a few that also you could go if it was after your senior year.
I applied for two at the end of my junior year. One was doing river ecology on the Platte River in Nebraska, and the other was doing glacial geology and glaciology on the Juneau Icefield in southeast Alaska — both field things. It wasn’t — I wasn’t interested in spending a summer doing laboratory stuff.
So, I applied. I got accepted for the Nebraska one, but not for the one in Alaska. And the rule was you could only do one. You couldn’t do two. I wanted to go to this Alaskan mountaineering opportunity so badly that I passed on the Nebraska one, which was not open to seniors. It was only open to juniors. So it was Alaska the next year, or nothing.
My feedback from the guys in Alaska was, “Academically, you’re fine, but you don’t have enough snow and ice mountaineering experience.” So, [laugh] at that winter, I organized with a very good friend of mine, who was also a cross-country and track runner, to do a winter backpacking and mountaineering trip in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts.
It was cold, windy, miserable. While we were there, he fell while we were pretty far from civilization, fell, and broke his arm. I splinted his arm, fixed him up, put his pack on top of mine, hiked him out, got him to a doctor, and got him home in one piece. Then I got his mother to write one of the letters of recommendation [laugh] —
— for me next year. For years after, my mother always joked that she thought I pushed him. Anyway, I got selected for the Juneau Icefield thing in Southeast Alaska, and that was another one of those life-changing experiences.
It’s called the Juneau Icefield Research Program. I was up there for two and a half months, working in parts of Alaska, British Columbia, some places where, as far as we knew, no humans had ever set foot. I mean, it was really, really remote places. And it gave me my first taste, of doing geologic fieldwork, and of going someplace where no one’s ever been before, and it just hooked me. By the time that summer was over, I decided that I was going to be geology major.
What were some of the major research questions prompting this fieldwork in Alaska?
Well, this was an ongoing program, and in fact, it’s still going on today. They did some of the very earliest work on the ways in which glaciers change over time. They’ve been doing research there for more than 50 years, going back to the same sites, same glaciers, year after year, so they’ve got this wonderful decades-long baseline of measurements of glacial response to climate change. It’s been a very, very productive program for many years. I was very lucky to be part of it.
Was someone like Aloni Thompson on your radar back then?
So, you got back to Cornell, and it’s all geology —
— for you at that point?
At that point, it was all geology. The problem that I had, though, was I had two competing passions. One was for doing field science, especially in the mountains. But the other was exploration in the rawest sense of that term — going someplace nobody’s ever been, and seeing something nobody’s ever seen.
And, obviously, there’s a duality there where it can be terrestrial or celestial.
Right. I’ll get to that. I loved the idea of real exploration. Going back to when I was, again, 8, 10 years old, the books that I read, the ones I was passionate about were all about the history of exploration. Antarctic, Arctic, deep ocean, you know, Beebe and Barton in their bathysphere, Scott and Amundsen in the south, Peary and Cook in the north, all that sort of stuff, I was just fascinated by it, and I read it voraciously. I still do. There’s a book right here on my nightstand about the Belgica expedition in Antarctica, which is one I’ve always been fascinated by. So, I wanted to do field science, but I wanted it to be true exploration, someplace that nobody had ever been. The problem that I began to face was that I came to realize — even though geology was fascinating to me — I came to realize that geologists who have been crawling over this planet for the past couple of hundred years had been just about everywhere —
— and seen just about everything. There were still fantastic scientific questions to be solved, but you couldn’t really go many places that nobody had been and never seen. The one possible exception [laugh] to that was the deep ocean.
So I was at that point fascinated — I wasn’t going to do geology on land. It was going to be marine tectonics or something like that. And then — I forget the year that it came out, but it was in the mid-70s — there was this map by Heezn and Thaarp. You’ve seen it. Everybody’s seen it.
They were a geophysicist and an artist, working together at Columbia, who put together the first comprehensive global map of the Earth’s seafloor. It came out sometime in’74 or ’75 or ’76, ’77, somewhere in there. It immediately went up on the wall in every single geology department in the country — probably in the world. And I saw that, and I went, oh, shit [laugh], now what?
The last frontier.
Yeah, [laugh] there goes that one. It wasn’t that the science didn’t fascinate it — fascinate me, it did, but, I wanted to do it someplace where nobody had ever been. Then when I was entering the spring semester of my third year, my junior year, I suddenly had a hole open up in my course schedule. I had passed a test that I didn’t really expect to pass, having to do with language proficiency, and so I didn’t have to take another semester of Spanish. So, I decided to do something else.
I was in the Space Sciences building one day, giving a friend a tour of the campus, and noticed a little — I still can still see it — a little light blue, 3 x 5 card, tiny little sign tacked up on the bulletin board, saying that a course on the results of the Viking mission to Mars was being offered that semester, taught by a scientist who was a member of the Viking science team. So, this is like ’77, and Viking had gotten to Mars a year or so before. Viking was going hot and heavy at the time. The landers were down, the orbiters were orbiting, there were pictures coming back daily.
So, I thought, wow, that sounds great, and so I went and signed up for the course. I was the only undergraduate in the course. It was a graduate course. In fact, the professor nearly kicked me out, but I talked my way into it. And because the course was a graduate-level course, all the students were expected to do some kind of piece of original research for our term paper to get our grade for the course.
So, we get two or three weeks into the semester, and it’s interesting stuff, and I think to myself, well, I probably should start thinking about my term paper for the course. Data were being sent regularly to the Viking investigators but, of course, this is before the internet, before CD-ROMs, before anything like that. It was coming out on these big rolls of photographic paper, and they would cut them up and put the pictures in binders.
Boxes of these things were piling up in a room at Cornell that was called the Mars room. The professor gave me a key to the Mars room so I could get in and look at some of the Viking orbiter pictures. I remember it’s about three, four weeks into the semester, walking in there, thinking, OK, I’m going to sit down, flip through some pictures, and see if I can come up with an idea for a term paper.
I was in that room for four hours [laugh], and I came out of there knowing exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. That was it. I had found what I was looking for. But the sacrifice, the thing that I had to leave behind, was going there myself.
I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too. It was either do field science on Earth where other people have already been, or do field science in the planets, where I couldn’t go myself. I’d have to do it with robots. Apollo was over. There any humans going to any planets anytime soon. So, I had to make that choice.
In the end, what I ended up doing was pursuing a career in robotic exploration of the solar system, helping to build and operate robots that go places where no one’s ever been, and doing field science with them, using the robots to see things nobody’s seen before. Then on the side [laugh], to scratch my other itch, for years, I’ve been participating in a variety of Artic, Antarctic underwater exploration activities. I’m never the PI. I’m not the person running the expedition.
But, if they need a research diver, or someone to carry samples, or to stand around with a rifle and watch for polar bears, whatever, that’s me. I’ve been on a bunch of these expeditions to the Arctic, Antarctic, a lot of underwater stuff, and it sort of fills in that [laugh] particular — that particular need. But the focus of my career ever since that day at the Mars room has been robotic exploration of the planets.
Now, did it just so happen that Cornell was the place to be for planetary science, or you just didn’t want to leave?
Oh, you mean when I chose where to go —
For graduate school.
Oh, well, that was, yeah, that was interesting. So, in contrast to my choice of an undergraduate school, I had many places that I could apply to for graduate school, and I did. I applied to five different schools.
By the time I was applying to graduate schools, this is getting to be, like, ’77, ’78, and Voyager was going to be the next big thing. I wanted to be part of Voyager. Now, the problem — the thing that was tough about Voyager for me was that what one used to do, quote, unquote, “geology” was imaging.
There was a Voyager imaging team that was formed at the time. But the people on it who were real geoscientists were all with the US Geological Survey. None of them were with universities. And, so, it wasn’t clear how I could get to work on Voyager by choosing a graduate school, because there just weren’t professors of geoscience out there who were on the Voyager team.
So, I just picked five of the top planetary science schools at the time. It was Caltech, Brown, Arizona, Arizona State, and Cornell. I applied to them all, got into them all, and was deciding what to do. And then one day — by this time, I was spending enough time in the astronomy department that I had my own little mailbox, down at floor level in the mailroom. And there was a note in it saying, “Carl Sagan would like to see you.”
I had never met Carl at that point. I’d seen him lecture, but I’d never met him personally. So, I go into his office, and there he is, and I sit down. I had applied to Cornell at this point, though really just for completeness. I had no intention of really going to Cornell. And he said he was on the Voyager team, and he said he wanted me to be his graduate student for Voyager. So, my little heart starts going pitter pat.
Steve, did you have any idea how he — you got on his radar?
No, still don’t. Never asked. But, yeah, he said he wanted me — I guess he saw my application but. This was very attractive to me, but I also knew that at that Carl was getting geared up to do the Cosmos series, and I was concerned about how much time he would have to deal with the graduate students.
So, after I talked to Carl, and I said, “Let me think about it,” I went down the hall, and I talked to another professor, a guy named Joe Veverka, who was the guy who had taught that Mars course that I’d taken the year before. And I said, “Look, I think I’d like to come to Cornell for graduate school because this opens the door for me to work with Voyager. But as much as I’d love to work with Carl, I’m worried that he’s not going to have a lot of time. So, can you be my official advisor, and then Carl will be on my committee?” And Joe said, “Yeah, sure, sounds good.”
So, I decided to go to Cornell. And a while after that, they added some scientists to the Voyager team, and one of those was Joe Veverka. So, both my main advisor and another one of my committee members, Carl, were both on the Voyager team, and I got to work with both of them when I was in graduate school. But, yeah, how I ended up staying at Cornell was that it was the way for me to get to work on Voyager when I was in grad school. And, as I mentioned earlier, I wound up writing my PhD thesis about a couple of the moons of Jupiter.
How much of a learning curve was there in terms of coursework relative to your cohort who might’ve done something more in astronomy or planetary science as undergraduates?
Well, there wasn’t a lot of planetary science undergraduate stuff, so there was a bit of a learning curve to climb. I began climbing it immediately after I took that Mars course. So by the time I was in my senior year, I was taking courses that were going to be relevant to planetary science, planetary geochemistry, geophysics and so forth. So, yeah, it was a shift in direction, but it was a manageable one.
What was the physical distinction between being present at Voyager and being on campus in Ithaca?
Oh, everything. In those days, it was really, really tough if you were not in the room to follow what was going on with a planetary mission. It’s nothing like today where a rover goes to Mars, or a spacecraft goes to Saturn, and the pictures just stream down, and the public sees them the same time the science team sees them. There was nothing like that then. You had to be in the room.
So just being there when the discoveries were being made, the decisions were being made, there was no substitute for it. The information transfer to the outside world, to the public, was press conferences, that was it.
What was the big mission of Voyager, as you saw it in real time?
Well it was a comprehensive study of the Jupiter, Saturn [laugh], and then later Uranus and Neptune systems. So, it was magnetospheres, plasma science, rings, the planet itself, geophysics, meteorology, and then all the moons. It was really a very comprehensive treatment — via flybys, it wasn’t an orbital mission — of all the science associated with those systems.
For me, the fascination was the moons. If you simplemindedly divide up the solid bodies in the solar system into just two classes, there’s the rocky ones, and there’s the icy ones. And prior to Voyager, all we’d seen was rocky ones. Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, Mars, all the solid bodies we’d seen in any detail had been rocky ones.
Ganymede and Callisto in the Jupiter system were the first icy moons ever seen close up. And, so, it’s a whole new category that’s half of the solid objects in the solar system or more. But this is the first time any of the icy ones had ever been seen. And, so, to me, that was fascinating.
And then Europa and Io both turned out to be fabulous, Io with the volcanoes erupting, and Europa with the cracks and the ice, and probably an ocean underneath. The moons were just fabulous. They went from little dots of light that you could do spectroscopy on, look at them in a telescope, to whole worlds that you could map in detail in the space of 48 hours. I didn’t sleep for 48 hours.
I was there for every minute, every single picture that came down. [laugh] I had my eyes glued to the screen. So, yeah, it was a fantastic experience.
Going back to your dreams about robotics and planetary exploration, for Voyager, what was happening in real time, and what was science fiction for you?
By that time, I think I felt that I understood well enough that none of it felt like science fiction. But all of it was just unimaginably cool. There were guys on the Voyager team who’d been in the business going back to the Ranger program who said, “This is the best one ever.” It was just fantastic, and I was there.
What you would see was the real-time image feed from the spacecraft. About once every 45 seconds a new picture of something no human being had ever seen came down. And there it was, and you’d have 45 seconds [laugh] to look at it, and then another one would come along. Of course they were all being recorded, and you could go back and look at them. But it was just breathtaking.
I remember many years after it was over — at a time when the Mars program was in disarray, and missions were being canceled, and so forth — sitting around with a couple of friends of mine about my age who had gotten their start working on the Viking project as graduate students, drinking a few beers and asking ourselves, “Why are we putting up with all of this?” It was a very dark time — this is years later — in the Mars program. And we each realized that each of us had had a formative experience at a very, very early stage in our career that just hooked us, both of them on Viking and me on Voyager.
I had become a planetary flight project junkie. I said at the time, “I’m willing to endure 20 years of missions being canceled, and sitting on airplanes, and looking at transparencies, and drinking bad coffee, just for another 48 hours like I had of Jupiter.” And they felt the same way based on their Viking experience. My career has been punctuated at intervals by these just life-changing experiences, and Voyager of Jupiter was definitely one of them.
Was anyone talking about astrobiology in those years, looking for water, thinking about microbes?
Yeah. When the Europa pictures came down, people immediately started saying, “Boy, that sure looks like a cracked-up sea ice kind of pattern.” So, yeah, there was chitchat and speculation about liquid water under the ice on Europa at that time.
Eventually we got quantitative about it, and started doing the physics and doing the calculations, and looking at tidal heating of Europa quantitatively. That was some of the stuff that I worked on immediately after I got my PhD when I went to Ames. One of the first papers that I wrote after I got to Ames Research Center was entitled On the habitability of Europa.
And I wasn’t the first person to think of that. So, yeah, as soon as the pictures of Europa came down, like that day, I can remember people saying, “Hey, you know, you think there could be an ocean under there?”
Obviously, you had nothing to compare it to, but I wonder, even intuitively, what you might’ve recognized in terms of some of the basic technological advances, optics, computers, communication, satellites, that made Voyager possible at that moment.
Yeah, because it was my first real mission, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I could look at the quality of the Voyager images, and I could compare them with, say, Mariner 6 and 7, and see obviously the cameras have gotten better. But it was really the first one for me, and so I didn’t have a basis for comparison, and while it didn’t seem like science fiction, because I understood how it was done, it sure seemed wonderful. [laugh]
Were you in touch with Carl Sagan during this entire process, regular contact?
Oh, yeah. There was the imaging science area on the third floor of building 264 of JPL, and that’s where we all worked. And Carl was there, and Joe was there, and I was there, and a bunch of grad students, and the whole Voyager imaging team, and that was our home. And we all worked together with the pictures coming down, and it was marvelous.
Was there any non-Voyager aspect to your actual thesis research?
No, it was all Voyager.
I mean, you have to narrow it down. What did you choose to write on specifically?
It was actually a very broad treatment of the geology and geophysics of Ganymede and Callisto. Theree was this sort of effort to divide up the moons of Jupiter among the different geoscientists on the team, and most of the scientists wanted to work on the really sexy ones, which were Io and Europa.
So I wanted a place where I could carve out a niche for myself. And the other thing was that there was a guy on the team named Gene Shoemaker, and Gene chose Ganymede and Callisto as where his focus would be. And Gene was someone who I just admired and respected so much. He, in a real sense, was sort of the father of planetary geology. He was the one who really first convinced the world that the craters on the moon were impact, not volcanic, really fundamental stuff.
So I picked Ganymede [laugh] and Callisto in large measure because it meant I’d be able to work with Gene. And I got to work with him very closely, spent a summer in Flagstaff, Arizona, working with him at the US Geological Survey. He was also professor at Caltech at the time. That was one of the best aspects of my time at graduate school was that in addition to working with Carl and Joe, I got to work with Gene.
As a result of Voyager, was your sense that manned spaceflight this far out was more remote or more possible?
You mean human spaceflight to the Jupiter system?
Jupiter’s system is a really tough place for humans. I’m not sure it really makes a lot of sense. 2001 notwithstanding, I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of sense to send humans to the Jupiter system. The radiation environment is horrific.
My question though is is that a conclusion as a result of Voyager’s findings? In other words, was part of Voyager to see if manned spaceflight that far out was feasible, or that was already known?
No, I can’t ever remember that being discussed at a Voyager meeting. The environment in there is so harsh. The objects are just so big. It’s a place that’s better suited to robotic exploration than it is to human exploration, at least for the foreseeable future. That’s not to say that you couldn’t do something there someday. But, again, that radiation environment in the Jovian system is just hellacious for humans.
After you defended, did you consider a more traditional academic track, or it was full-steam ahead on the NASA side?
[laugh] Well, it was interesting how that turned out too. There was a group of three scientists: Stan Peale, Pat Cassen, Ray Reynolds. Pat and Ray were at NASA Ames. Stan was at, I guess, UC Santa Barbara? I think he was at UC Santa Barbara.
And back, oh, the early ’70s, maybe, they had done some work where they looked at tidal heating of the Moon, the Earth’s moon, and the idea that the Earth’s moon undergoes a little bit of tidal flexure. It gets flexed back and forth, and that flexing, there’s going to be frictional dissipation, and it’ll heat the Moon up some. And they developed all the tidal heating theory to figure out how much it would get heated, and they did a calculation, and it turns out it’s about five degrees. [laugh] So, they wrote it up, and put it on a shelf.
Then, as Voyager was bearing down on Jupiter, and we on the Voyager team were focused on the planet that was getting bigger and bigger in the front windshield, just a short time before the encounter, Pat and Stan and Ray pulled out their old calculations, dusted them off, and said, “Oh, let’s just try this for the Jovian satellites, and see what we get.” And Io just blew up. The amount of heating that was predicted for Io was insane. They couldn’t believe their eyes.
They checked and they checked and they checked again, and, damn, this thing should be molten practically. So, they dashed off a paper to Science, got it published about a week before the flyby, predicting intense tidal heating and volcanic activity on Jupiter’s moon, Io.
Nobody on the Voyager team had read this paper. We didn’t know of its existence, nobody was reading Science. It came out as a magazine in those days, it wasn’t online, and we were too busy. Nobody looked at it.
And I remember when the pictures came down, it looked really crazy, really weird, and we didn’t know what we were looking at. And then a day or two after the flyby, we discovered these volcanoes popping off. And then somebody found this paper. And just the sheer balls that it took to write that paper —
— and publish it, you were either going to be spectacularly right or laughably wrong, and proven that way within a week. And I was so impressed by what it took to write that paper… the insights that they’d had, and just how spectacularly successful that paper was, and how influential it turned out to be, that I decided, oh, I want to work with these guys.
Pat and Ray were both at NASA Ames, and so what got me to go to Ames was the chance to work with the two of them. Again, it was another one of those fortuitous things that drew me to that place. And then, of course, when I got to Ames, I wasn’t really on the academia track, so I wasn’t teaching courses or anything like that. I was just devoted full-time to research.
And I was surrounded by really smart, scientifically generous people, and I went off in20 different directions at once. When you’re writing a PhD thesis, it’s sort of this treadmill that you can’t step off of. You have to stay focused, and get the damn job done. If something interesting pops up, you can’t just follow it, right? You’ve got to get it finished. But at Ames, I could do everything I wanted. I was young, I had a lot of energy, and I did a whole bunch of different things. It was a great time.
Culturally, what were some of the key differences at Ames, coming from Voyager?
A somewhat broader range of scientific disciplines, but the big difference culturally was that everybody was working in their own chosen area. On Voyager, yeah, there were physicists, and there were atmospheric scientists, and there were geologists, but we were all working on the Jupiter system. It was all the Jupiter system and then later the Saturn system.
Whereas at Ames, it was the universe. [laugh] It was everything. You had Bill Borucki, who later became the principal investigator for that wonderful Kepler mission, all kinds of astrophysicists, people who were doing astrobiology, astrochemistry experiments in the laboratory. It was all kinds of stuff. It was a very, very intellectually diverse crowd, and it was a wonderful place.
Sometimes, at some academic institutions, there’s a culture that everybody’s kind of guarding their own turf, and keeping secrets from one another, that sort of thing. But the culture at Ames at that time was one of intellectual generosity, and people sharing ideas. And any wacky idea that popped into my head, having to do with space sciences, chances are within two floors of building 245, I could walk down the hall, and find somebody who knew about it, and who was happy to talk to me.
I’m not sure if this would’ve filtered down to your level, but the transition from Voyager to Ames happened at the transition of the Carter to the Reagan administrations.
Did you detect any changes as a result, budgetary, politically, just the overall mission?
Well, it was during the Reagan administration that what eventually became the International Space Station got started.
It went through many permutations. But that was when the transition to the human spaceflight program to the space station began. That didn’t affect what was going on, at least in my part of Ames, very much at all because we were all associated with the space sciences part of NASA, some planetary, some heliophysics, some astrophysics, all the different Earth sciences, all the different aspects of NASA space science. But, as I said at the beginning of this, the progression in space science was much more linear over time than the progression in human spaceflight. And at that time, there was this big shift in human spaceflight taking place, but it didn’t really affect the group that I was in at Ames very much.
Speaking of those wacky ideas, what did you focus on most? What were you thinking about during those early years?
Oh [laugh], there was a lot of stuff. I was very, very interested in continuing to do work on icy satellites, and so I did work on tidal heating of Europa, quantitative predictions of there being an ocean of liquid water on Europa. I did work on tidal heating of Enceladus, and the idea that there was liquid water in there, and resurfacing going on.
I also continued to do a lot of work on Mars. Just right down the road, literally, at the USGS in Menlo Park was a group at the US Geological Survey that was doing Mars science. Mike Carr — Michael Carr — who had been the leader of the Viking orbiter imaging team, was at Menlo Park, and so I’d spent a day or two each week in Menlo Park with him, doing science together. A very, very, very collaborative environment. So, I was, yeah, I was doing Mars, and satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, and all of them at a very high rate of speed. [laugh]
Now, were you publishing, attending conferences, like you would have in a more traditional postdoc environment?
Oh, yeah, very much so. I was banging out papers. I was giving talks at conferences. I was — what? — 25, 26 years old. I just — I had a lot of energy and a lot of ambition — a lot of ambition — and I wanted to make a name for myself.
There was another change in my thinking that came about as a result of the Voyager experience. I spent three years as a graduate student working on Voyager, and I saw how majestic it was, how complex it was, how successful it was. I was very, very acutely aware of the fact that somebody somewhere years before had come up with the idea for Voyager, had sold it to the agency, had sold it to the Congress, had rounded up the funding to make it happen, had done the mission design, had done the spacecraft design, had done the instrument design, put everything through integration and test, tested it all, got it working, got it on top of the rockets, launched it, flew it, and wrote the sequences to gather the data. Then the data hit the ground, I said, “Thank you very much,” took it, and ran with it, and it became a PhD, just like that.
I didn’t do anything to make that happen. I was just there in the right place at the right time to receive that wealth of marvelous data. And it filled me with very deep senses of both indebtedness and ambition. There was no way that I could pay back the Voyager team for what they had done. I was just the beneficiary, I was very lucky, and there was nothing I could do for them.
The only thing I could do was the classic pay it forward thing. So, you combine that sense of indebtedness, that I owe the world something, with the burning ambition to make a name for myself that I always had anyway. You layer those two things on top of each other. I wanted to do a planetary mission. I wanted to do a planetary mission. That hit me during Voyager, and it didn’t leave me until Opportunity died. [laugh]
And that meant staying at Ames from the postdoc to the full-time staff position?
Well, yeah, Ames was a good place to be to do that. It wasn’t possible to propose missions in those days because the Discovery program, for example, didn’t exist. But it was a good place for a budding, would-be PI to be.
I was there for five years. I was a postdoc for two, and then a civil servant for three years. And one of the potential downsides that I saw in making the shift back to academia and going back to Cornell as a faculty member was that I wasn’t going to be as close to NASA. I wouldn’t be a NASA employee. I would have to get involved in a NASA mission coming in from the outside, rather than being on the inside.
The Challenger disaster was, you know, something that everybody who was alive remembers, obviously. What was that day like for you?
Horrible. It was horrible, like it was for everybody else. I was at a workshop at Caltech that day, and I remember we got the news, and everything just kind of stopped. The space community’s pretty close-knit. I actually knew one of the astronauts on board Challenger pretty well, and his wife, and it was devastating.
Did you sense immediately that it would — you know, not just the awfulness of the day, but the long-term strategic impact that would have, not only on NASA but just on the concept of risk-taking in manned spaceflight?
Yeah, it was clear that something of that magnitude couldn’t happen without there being an impact. It wasn’t obvious the day that it happened. We were all so shocked that it would’ve taken an unusually clear thinker to be able to shake off the horror of what we’d all just seen with our own eyes, and start thinking about, well, what are the long-term strategic implications going to be for the agency. But, yeah, it quickly became apparent that it was going to have an impact, just as the Columbia accident did years later.
Did you ever toy with the idea of taking an administrative route at NASA HQ, going that way?
Not until very, very much later, no. I wanted to build hardware. I wanted to build hardware, and fly it in space.
So, at what point did that mean leaving Ames, and thinking about professor jobs?
Well [laugh], here’s how that came about. I was perfectly happy at Ames. I was recently married, living in Silicon Valley on a government salary, which was tough financially. But —
Yeah, even then, but doing OK, and I had no interest in trying to find a faculty job anywhere. And then a planetary science faculty position opened up at Cornell, and they called me and said, “Hey, are you — would you like this job?” And I said, “No, I’m OK. I’m good where I am. I’m happy. Never mind.”
And I went home that night, and I told my wife about it, and she said, “You did what?” [laugh] She was born and raised in Ithaca. Her father was on the faculty there. Real estate prices were lower by about a factor of three. We were going to start a family and, buy a home, and all of that.
And, anyway, the next day, I was on the phone with Cornell [laugh] again, after my wife had told me that “You probably might want to give them a call.” So, I called them up, and I ended up taking the job. And, in the end, it worked out great. Ithaca was a great place to raise kids. It’s a great place to raise a family.
Cornell was a terrific place to be academically, and I was able to successfully pursue my ambitions of doing a mission to the planets from a little town in Upstate New York. I didn’t have to be at NASA. In fact, there were some advantages of being at a university.
How narrowly focused were you on the department of astronomy specifically being the best place for where you could do what you wanted to do?
Well, back in those days, in any given year, you could count the number of permanent planetary science jobs that opened up on the fingers of one hand.
There were not a lot of opportunities. This job opened up. It was in a town that was desirable for us to live in, with family near at hand, very affordable real estate for a young couple buying their first home. There was a lot going for it.
And it was strong academically. I knew the place well. I knew the department well. They knew me. And, so, it was an easy decision to make. The [laugh] funny part of it was, at the time, my father-in-law, who was a very prominent engineering professor at Cornell, had been offered a very attractive position at Northwestern in Chicago. So, he’s contemplating a move to Chicago at the same time we’re contemplating a move to Ithaca.
They don’t want to leave if there are going to be grandkids in Ithaca. We don’t want to go there if they’re not going to be there. So, there was a kind of interesting back and forth. And, in the end, we said, “Oh, look, Ithaca’s a good place for us anyway. We’re going to go to Cornell.” He decided to stay so he’d been near grandkids, and that was how it worked out. [laugh]
I could ask the same question going into the graduate program in planetary science, and the learning curve. Coming into an astronomy program, in terms of teaching expectations, was there a learning curve there, or you had that under your belt?
No, I had already made that jump. I was an undergraduate in the geology department, but by the time I was in graduate school, I spent all my time over in the astronomy department, so that I could learn the sorts of things that I needed to learn to understand planets. And, so, that was not a difficult shift at all.
All right. So, you get back to Ithaca.
You have this idea of what you want to build. Walk me through that. How does that play out?
Yeah, so, I got to Ithaca in ’86, and at this point, OK, I realize this is where I’m going to be for the duration, so I need to come up with a way to do the kind of mission that I really, really want to do, and make it happen from Cornell. So, at this point, I was still working a lot with Viking orbiter images of Mars. They were, 10 years old by then, but there was still a lot of science to be done.
It was fascinating stuff, and I would use the images to try to do work that was sort of a mixture of data analysis and theoretical modeling. And you’d look at things from orbit, and you’d look down, and you’d say, “Well, I think it could be this. But it could be this, or it could be this, or it could be that.” It was frustrating. And I just knew from my training as a geologist that if you could just put me down on the surface with my boots and a rock hammer and a hand lens for five minutes, I could tell you what the answer was.
There were clues that would be present at human scale that were just invisible from orbit, and no amount of building bigger aperture telescopes was going to really solve that problem. You had to get down on the surface, and touch the rocks, and measure what they were made of. And I just decided that science on the Martian surface was what I wanted to do.
And, so, starting in 1987, I began what became a 10-year-long process of writing proposals to NASA, each one better than the one that preceded it, and each one unsuccessful, to try to get some good scientific instrumentation down on the surface of Mars. I knew Mars pretty well at this point. I was competent with my science chops but not with my engineering chops. I didn’t really have any. I didn’t know how to build instruments or develop spaceflight hardware.
So, when my first sabbatic leave came along from Cornell, I took it at an aerospace company. I didn’t go to another university or something like that. I went to Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado, and spent a lot of time there learning how to build spaceflight instrumentation, particularly a panoramic camera.
So there was then a series of proposals written over a period of 10 years to try to get something to Mars, something down on the surface, preferably something mobile, and really, really do some meaningful science with it. And between when I started on that path and when we actually had the successful selected proposal on our fourth try that turned into Spirit and Opportunity, it was a decade where I spent most of my time writing unsuccessful proposals.
What were your research questions at that point? Of all the things you were interested in, what was the one thing you really were just most curious about that you wanted to find out?
Was Mars ever habitable?
Four words, that’s it. [laugh] Were there ever habitable conditions on the surface of Mars? And there’s layers of detail beneath that, having to do with how long water was there? What was the pH? What was the chemistry? You can go on and on and on and on.
But what drove me was that. Was Mars ever habitable? The whole driving thing that kept me going through all those years, the scientific curiosity, the thing that drove me to do it, you could print on a T-shirt. It was real simple.
Why? Why is that the question for you? I mean, that could even get to like deeper philosophical questions —
— questions about the universe. What was it all about?
Yeah, and it does. It gets you there very quickly. I’ll give you a couple of reasons. One is that we do not know how common life is in the universe. We have one example: us. There’s very good reason to believe there are a lot of planets out there, and objective data now that show that conclusively. But in terms of how many planets there are that have life on them, we only know of one. It’s like back when we didn’t know about exoplanets, right? We just don’t know. But if you were to learn that life had once independently taken hold on another world just in this one solar system, then when you consider the multitude of solar systems out there it takes no great leap of faith, imagination, or anything else to come to the conclusion that life could be pretty commonplace.
And it could go the other way too. If you go to Mars, you discover that the conditions there were what you think is consistent with habitability, but after decades of searching, you turned up no evidence that life ever arose, then you’ve learned something profound about the conditions that are required for life to arise. Mars had water. It had conditions that would’ve been fairly favorable for life, but life never showed up. Why? So, that’s a profound finding either way.
There’s another point, and this is one people don’t think about much, but I think it’s potentially an important one. We don’t know how life arises from non-living material. I mean, it happened. Here we are, right? But we do not know the process by which life arises from non-living material. And we cannot learn that by studying the fossil record on Earth because when you look at the oldest rocks on Earth, life is already there. Because of all the geologic churn that has taken place on this planet, plate tectonics, all the resurfacing, rocks that might once have held clues as to how life first arose from non-living material are gone. They’ve been completely recycled, and we’ll never find them. They don’t exist anymore.
Mars, on the other hand, is largely covered with four billion-year-old rocks. And, so, if — big if — but if life ever did arise on Mars, evidence for the process by which that took place could at some level be preserved in the planet’s fossil record. So, there’s a lot of profound science that’s connected with the issue of habitability on Mars. You’re not going to answer all these questions in one go. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
Yeah. So, on that question of starting somewhere, scientifically, where do you start? What’s the plan of attack for answering this fundamental question?
Plan of attack is you choose landing sites that you believe, due to their mineralogical character or their geomorphological character or what have you, are likely to have been places where water could’ve been at one time. And then you go there with the tools that you need — a geologist’s toolkit — to read the record in the rocks, and to assess what the environmental conditions were like when those rocks were first laid down. Every mineral has a set of conditions — temperature, pressure, pH, you name it — under which it is stable, and can form, and then other conditions under which it cannot.
So every mineral is an indicator of environmental conditions. And if you have an assemblage of minerals, then the Venn diagram shrinks it down, and you can begin to really pin down something about what conditions were like. There are also textural clues, particularly for sedimentary rocks, having to do with grain sizes, grain size distributions, sedimentary structures and so forth that can tell you pretty profound things about =whatever the transport mechanism and sedimentation environment was at the time.
This was stuff that I had learned to do when I was 19, 20, 21 years old, learning how to be a geologist climbing around in the mountains of Wyoming. So the idea was to pick an interesting problem — was Mars ever habitable? — build a geologic toolkit, a Swiss Army knife with enough blades on it to go after some of those questions, and then put them on a mobile vehicle that would allow you to really explore just as you and I would. If you and I were there, and our job was to explore this place, what would we do?
A helicopter drops us off, and there we are. So, we look around. No, that doesn’t look very interesting. Ooh, look over there though. That looks interesting. Let’s go there.
So, we go there, and we get a close-up look at the rocks. We get down with our hand lens, and we break off a piece with our rock hammer, and we’ve got devices to measure what the geochemistry is and what some of the minerals are. And we go, “Oh, wow, that’s cool.” Field geology is this marvelous process of hypothesis formulation and testing that’s done in real time, out in a field environment. You have a hypothesis, and you make an observation to test that hypothesis.
Pretty good chance you’re going to find it’s not quite what you were expecting. And, so, then you got to formulate a new hypothesis, devise a test for it, and then figure out which blade in your Swiss Army knife is the best one for trying to test that hypothesis? What is the measurement that you most want to make next? We did that for 14 years. [laugh]
To what extent do these questions that can only be posed on Mars, and to what extent is it Mars because that’s simply lowest-hanging fruit?
Of the planetary bodies, Mars — aside from Earth — is the one that is by far the best suited to the issue of habitability at its surface. There’s a fascinating possibility of life on Europa, but you’re not going to find living stuff walking around on the surface. It’s freezing cold in an intense radiation environment. You’ve got to go really deep. You got to go through probably kilometers of ice.
Now, I’ve said for many years if I knew how to do submarines on Europa, I wouldn’t be screwing around with rovers on Mars. But [laugh] for a problem that was going to be tractable in my lifetime…
I came along too late for Apollo. I wasn’t going to make it to humans going to Mars. I can say with fair confidence now at the age of 65 that I’m probably not going to live to see submarines on Europa. But rovers on Mars seemed to be something that, if we played our cards right, could fall right into the sweet spot of my career, and in those few decades of greatest productivity could be something that might be achievable. So that was what I went for.
In the way that current searches for exoplanets are thinking about biosignatures and technosignatures —
— were any of those techniques relevant for you in those years on Mars?
They were of enormous interest. I mean, the two things that I really would’ve liked to have made happen was, first of all, to have the instrumentation necessary to look for complex organic moleculesnin rocks on the Martian surface, and then, ideally, to actually collect samples, and bring them back. Both of those are in work right now.
The Curiosity rover has this marvelous instrument suite called SAM — until I left Cornell and went to Blue Origin, I was a co-investigator on that experiment — and it’s a gas chromatography and mass spectrometer experiment that can detect organics at the parts per gazillion level. It’s a marvelous instrument. And then the Perseverance rover is collecting the first suite of samples that’s going to come back.
But by the time I had spent a decade writing proposals, we were in Mars Pathfinder timeframe, and the leap from a rover the size of a microwave oven that had ventured 12 meters away from its lander rover to Curiosity and Perseverance was too much a leap. We never, ever, ever could’ve sold something like that, especially in light of the fact that there had just been two really embarrassing failures in the Mars program.
The Mars Climate Orbiter mission, and the Mars Polar Lander mission, both launched in 1998, had both failed. The opportunity came to do our mission came right on the heels of those losses. The way we managed to advocate our mission to NASA successfully was by claiming — honestly but not correctly [laugh] — that we could fit a really capable rover into the Mars Pathfinder airbag landing system as originally designed.
And then what we got build was the very best payload that we could possibly come up with that would fit in that envelope: the cost envelope, the schedule envelope, the volume envelope, the mass envelope. It had to fit in all those dimensions. And, so, a big GC/MS instrument or something like that was not in the cards. That was just not going to happen.
Instead, I had to choose instruments that I could fit into that envelope, and that were at a technology readiness level that was high enough that they’d be ready. You’ve got to realize that between when NASA said go, and when we had to be on top of the rockets in Florida, was 34 months. A normal development lifetime for a mission of that complexity is about five years. Four is really ambitious. Thirty-four months is insane. And what that meant was we didn’t have time to develop any new technologies.
We eventually had some new technologies in the form of software that we uplinked later. But there was essentially no new technology on our mission when we launched it. We had to go with stuff that existed, and then combine it together in ways that they had never been combined before to do something that no one had ever done before.
The only rover that had ever been to Mars before Spirit and Opportunity was Sojourner, and, as I mentioned, it never ventured more than about 12 meters away from the lander that carried it there. With Sprit and Opportunity, we wanted to drive kilometers away from the lander. So I came to the conclusion that if I just sat around, and waited until the conditions for right to do the perfect mission, it would pass me by.
There was an opportunity to really try to do something meaningful. It had to fit within a certain, hyperdimensional box. The challenge was to build the very, very best mission that would fit into that hyperdimensional envelope.
To go back to that laser focus, was life ever possible on Mars, what were some of the highs and lows, when you felt like you were closer to answering that question, and when you felt like you were really far away from answering that question?
Well, the lows all came before launch. [laugh]
Almost all the lows came before launch. We had 34 months to develop these things, and get them on top of the rockets. We barely made it. In fact, this sounds crazy, but you can actually build two faster than you can build one. If we hadn’t had two, we never would’ve made it.
The reason for that has to do with testing the vehicles. There are two kinds of tests you do on a spacecraft. One was to validate workmanship. Are the screws tightened down? Are the connectors properly mated, and so forth? And those you have to do on every vehicle you fly.
The other kind is to validate the design. Is it designed properly? And if you build two identical vehicles, you only have to perform each of those tests on one of them. So, we can do one test on this vehicle while we’re doing a different test on the other vehicle, and by doing those tests in parallel, we can pull in time in our schedule. If we’d had only a single vehicle, we’d have had to do them all in series.
So, we barely, barely made it. We had so many test failures along the way, so many crises, so many disasters, airbags that burst, parachutes that were exploding, just an unimaginable number of things that, had we not solved them, would’ve stopped the mission. There were so many of these, and it was so tough.
If we’d had five years or even four years, it would’ve been much more reasonable. You hit a snag, and you work it, right? But, OK, we’ve got to solve this problem in the next eight days, that kind of thing. Years later, after the vehicles had been successfully rumbling around on Mars for a long time, people would say to me, “Don’t you think it’s a miracle that they’ve lasted this long?” And I always wanted to say, “It’s a miracle we made it to Florida.”
That was the miracle. So, the lows were all during the development. Once we got on Mars, there were scares. There was one really bad scare right at the beginning with Spirit. Eighteen days into Spirit’s mission — eighteen Martian days, eighteen sols, we lost contact with the vehicle, just lost it. And there was a period of about 72 hours there where the battery was just burning down and burning down, and if this problem had gone on for another couple of days, we probably would’ve lost the vehicle.
But some very, very smart engineers figured out what was going wrong, and managed to fix it, and then, a few days later, Opportunity landed, and we were off and running. But, yeah, there were challenges the whole time we were on Mars, all the way out to14 years in, when we finally lost Opportunity. But with the exception of those — the only really low moment the whole time we were on Mars was sol 18 for Spirit when we lost contact with the vehicle, and we got it back 3 days later.
After that, it was just, scientifically, one high after another. Engineering-wise, after a while, something would break. Something would go wrong. It’s just a fun challenge to go solve. Once we had achieved full mission success, which we did 90 sols in, by the time you’re 10 years into your 90-day mission, it’s all just great fun. And if something breaks, oh, good, now we’ve got something else to figure out.
So once we got to Mars, there were hardly any low spots at all. It was just one marvelous, continuous 14-year high — even losing Spirit, which happened after about six years. Spirit had lasted so much longer, and had done so much more than I had ever dreamed, that is was really an honorable death.
I always felt that there were only two honorable ways for a rover mission to end. One is that you simply wear it out. You beat that rover up to the point where it’s got nothing left to give you. Wear it out. That’s what happened to Spirit.
The other is Mars just reaches out and kills it, [laugh] and that’s what happened to Opportunity in a dust storm. So, in both cases, they were honorable deaths that came long, long [laugh], long after the design requirement of 90 sols.
Now nobody thought the wheels were going to fall off when the sun came up on the 91st sol. We knew that we had a design margin. Before we launched, if you’d sat me down and fed me truth serum and said, “OK, Squyres, how long do you really think they’re going to last?” I would’ve said, “You know, if we can them on to Mars, I bet we’ll get at least six months out of these things. And if things really break our way, we might even get an Earth year out of them.” But 6 years, 14 years [laugh], I’d never, ever, ever contemplated something like that happening.
In all of the decisions in terms of sensors, things that you could use to find out what’s going on Mars, what were you happy you thought of, and what do you wish you added if you can go back in time?
If you can go back in time, are you going to give me more time and more money, or do I have to work within the time and money box that I had?
No, more time, more money; best-case scenario.
Oh, sure. Oh, well, yeah, best-case scenario, I’m going to build Curiosity and Perseverance? That’s what I’d be doing. But we didn’t have that. We had the box that we had.
If you’re going to keep us in the box that we were in, that schedule, that budget — well, we busted the budget [laugh] a couple times. But if you were going to keep us in that schedule box, keep us in that mass box, keep us in that volume box, keep us in that power box, I wouldn’t change a single screw or a single wire — nothing. It worked out so much better than I would’ve dreamed, I wouldn’t dare. [laugh] I wouldn’t change anything.
How did you plan against the difficulty of proving a negative? In other words, the rover’s there. It’s not finding any evidence that life was ever possible here. How do you satisfy yourself that you’re not just looking in the right place? You’re not looking deeply?
Oh, you can’t, you can’t. That’s the gamble. If you can deploy 100 rovers to 100 sites on Mars, and figuratively turn over every rock, and look in every possible environment, and you don’t turn up anything, then maybe you can prove a negative at some level. But we had two rovers and two sites, and you pick the two best sites that you can within the capabilities of your vehicle, and you roll the dice. That’s —
— that’s the nature of the game.
— who were your key collaborators in helping you formulate the parameters, where to look, what to see, how to analyze the data, all of these things?
Wow. [laugh I had a spectacularly good team. My partner through all of this, my deputy principal investigator was Ray Arvidson from Washington University in St. Louis. Ray could do basically anything, his abilities were boundless.
I could just say, “Oh, I’ve got this problem, Ray. Can you go solve it?” And he would go off and solve it. He wasn’t an instrument guy really, but he was very much an operations guy, very astute scientifically.
I had the good fortune to have an enormous number of really, really capable scientists on the team, who really helped guide the scientific decision-making that we made. And I’m reluctant to give you a list of them because I’m sure I’ll leave important people out. But some of the ones who come to mind are Andy Knoll from Harvard; John Grotzinger, who was at MIT at the time, now at Caltech; Scott McLennan at Stony Brook; Brad Jolliff at Washington University in St. Louis; gosh, Doug Ming; Dick Morris at Johnson Space Center.
There were just some spectacularly good scientists on my team across the full range of scientific disciplines that you needed to do this mission.People who were very, very broad thinkers, people with years of experience. We had Mike Carr. The guy who was the head of the Viking orbiter imaging team was on the team. Ron Greeley from Arizona State.
Oh, Larry Soderblom from the USGS. Larry is a superstar. He was the deputy PI of the Voyager team when I was working Voyager back in the ’70s. He must’ve been in his — I don’t know — mid-30s at the time or something. He was the deputy team leader. He was the guy who led all the analysis of all the geoscience stuff.
He was on my team. Larry was — there’s a term in the weapons world, aerospace weapons, called “fire and forget”. There are some weapons that when you fire them at your target, you have to at some level actively guide them to the target, and make sure they go where they’re supposed to go.
There are other weapons that are fire and forget. You designate a target, you push the button, you fire the weapon, and then you can turn your attention to the next threat. Larry was fire and forget. Some problem would come up on MER and I’ve got no idea what the solution is. It’s going to take somebody [laugh] really clever to figure this one out. I don’t have time even to deal with it because I’ve got 14 other things I’ve got to do.
“Larry, fix this for me, would you, please?” Boom, fire and forget, and it would get solved. And with Larry it could be scientific. It could be engineering. It could be programmatic, political. Larry was so good, he could do it all.
Ray was that way too in a lot of ways. So, yeah, success in a scientific undertaking of that sort is critically dependent on the team that you put together, and how you — “manage” is the wrong word. “Lead” sounds a little lofty — how you guide that team, how you —
— encourage that team — yeah, coordinate. It’s a bunch of things. I learned very quickly that being a principal investigator on a big science investigation is not like being the general in an army. You don’t give orders. You can’t. If you just simply tell people what to do, you are not allowing them to exercise the ingenuity and creativity that they bring to the team.
You’ve got to give people room to come up with their own ideas, and pursue them. At the same time, we’ve only got two rovers. At any given time, there’s one group of scientists that’s running a given rover. And if you’ve got 20 different people on the line, trying to decide what the rover’s going to do that day, you’re going to have at least 20 different opinions for what it ought to be. Every single day, every single sol, that team has to come to a consensus on what the rover is going to do.
So there was this fascinating challenge of getting a group of really intelligent, very independent-thinking individuals to work together collectively to get this literally priceless national asset on the surface of another world, to get everything out of it that we practically can, and do it day after day after day for 14 years, keeping [laugh] everybody happy through the process. [laugh]
I remember I decided very early in surface operations — in fact, before we landed — that I needed some kind of metric to give myself a sense of whether I was doing my job well or not as a PI, whether things were going as they should. You can come up with all sorts of metrics, number of panoramas acquired, number of meters driven, number of spectra collected, number of papers published. You can come up with all sorts of things.
And [laugh], in the end, what I decided to use as my metric — and this is going to sound silly, but it’s exactly what I used — what I decided to use as my metric was fun. Because when scientists are devoting a big chunk of their career to something like this, if they’re not having fun, something’s wrong. Right? If they’re dissatisfied with the quality of the data, if they’re having disagreements with other scientists about access to data products or authorship of papers, if any number of things that could go wrong is going wrong, they’re not going to have fun.
I was the PI of a team of a couple of hundred people, when you count all the grad students and everybody. And I can’t be sitting down and spending an hour a day talking to everybody. During the early days of operations, we had two floors of building 264, the very same building where the Voyager imaging team had been years and years before. We had the fourth and fifth floors: Spirit on the fourth floor; Opportunity on the fifth floor.
On the days when I was doing tactical flight operations, on the days when I was leading the process of sending a set of commands to the rover, I was focused on tactical flight ops. But that would be at most maybe three sols a week. The other days, I just circled like a shark. The way the building was laid out, there was a central core where the elevators and restrooms were, and then all the offices were in a ring around the outside. I’d do the fourth floor and I’d do the fifth floor, and I’d just slowly walk around, and listen to the voices, and look at the faces, and seeing who looked happy, who looked like they’re having fun. Stick my head into an office, and just get a sense of what’s going on. Sit down and just listen, but I wouldn’t say anything, just listen to what was going on around me.
And, occasionally, I would come across somebody who just seemed like they weren’t having a good time. And that’s when I would sit down and, “Hey, how’s it going, Gary? How are things going for you?” That was what I used to try to figure out how things were going. And I really, really, really wanted everybody on the team not just to be able to say, “Yeah, I was there,” not just be able to participate in making discoveries, but to just have it be one of the intellectual and personal highlights of their life.
I really, really wanted that. We’re not going to get rich. We’re not going to get famous. It’d better be fun. So I put a lot of effort into the chemistry of the team.
One of the keys to making that work is that everybody shares a common set of expectations about data rights, publication rights, you know, who has access to what data? Who gets to be co-authors on what paper, and so forth? What I’d seen in the many projects I’d been prior to this is when problems in those areas came up, it was because different people on the team had different expectations about what was going to happen. And when their expectations were not met, they were unhappy.
The way I sidestepped all of that was before we even launched, I wrote — and everybody on the project signed up to it — I wrote what I called our rules of the road document, and it laid out all the expectations that everybody should have with respect to access to data. Everybody gets access to all the data, period. A very simple rule. No scientist gets to keep data from their instrument to themselves. We have one instrument. It’s the rover. It’s got a bunch of sensors on it, but we have one tool.
There were also rules about authorship, and everybody knew what those rules were. There were never any misunderstandings. “Oh, I thought I’d be able to do” — no. It’s written down. You know it. It’s in the rules of the road. So, that helped enormously.
The other thing is you always have to make people feel like their opinions matter, like they’re going to be listened to. When they come up with an idea for something the rover ought to do today, or something the rover ought to do next week, they should feel like there’s a shot that it’s actually going to happen.
Of course, as the PI, it was my responsibility to see that we maximized the science that would come out of the vehicle. But an interesting twist on that is that you don’t necessarily achieve that by doing the very best thing you can do on every single day. Because if there is some scientist who has a good idea or even occasionally has a good idea, but can never get the rover to do the thing that that scientist wants it to do, eventually, they’re going to just get fed up and walk away, and then you’ve lost that intellect. You’ve lost that contributor. And, down the road, there’s going to be some idea that that person would’ve had that never pops up, and you missed it. In the navy, it’s called running a happy ship, and I devoted an enormous amount of thought and attention to doing that.
Steve, this is all great detail on internal management. What about external affairs? Did you do press conferences? Did you leave that to others?
[laugh] I did a lot of press conferences — lots and lots of press conferences.
What were the most important things you wanted to convey broadly to the public?
Oh, that was a fascinating experience because. At one level, I wanted to convey the discoveries that we made,what Mars is like, and what Mars was like billions of years ago at these sites. But I saw another opportunity beyond just that. The thing that was unusual about our mission was that it was geologic fieldwork in the purest sense.
And, as I said earlier, geologic fieldwork is this process of hypothesis formulation and testing that happens on a minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day basis. You come up with an idea, and then it turns out it’s wrong. So, then you come up with a different idea, and, eventually, you find the one that makes the most sense based on the data that you have in front of you.
The way NASA has traditionally presented scientific discoveries is that data are analyzed, a discovery is made, a paper is written, it’s submitted to Science or Nature or some other journal like that, it’s peer-reviewed, it’s published, and then the day the publication is going to come out, NASA calls a press conference. And there is the principal investigator, and there are one or two other team members. And then there’s one or two scientists who are not part of the team but who have the knowledge to comment on it, and they go from left to right, down the row, and they talk about what was done, and that’s the discovery.
That didn’t work for us. That didn’t work for us because there was so much attention, especially for Spirit at the beginning, focused on these rovers that the media were clamoring for a press conference every single day. What our rover would do in a day is what a scientist in the field could do in 30 or 45 seconds. So imagine I’m a scientist, at my field site. I’m doing my science. I’m writing stuff down in my field notebook, and you’re asking me every 45 seconds to sit down and tell you where things stand [laugh], right? That’s the equivalent of what we were being asked.
You’re not going to have final answers. You’re not going to have peer review. You’re not going to have anything like that. And the NASA media people were profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of a, quote, unquote, “NASA scientist” sitting down and saying, “I don’t know. We found these little weird round things in the soil, and we don’t know what they are.” That made them really, really uncomfortable.
But I figured out the key. These were all television people, right? And the beautiful thing about our mission was that we could formulate a hypothesis about something we saw from a distance, and drive over to it, and investigate it with a microscope and spectrometers and so forth. So when I had to sit up at a press conference, I’d say, “Well, we just found this crazy weird thing. It could be this. It could be this. It could be this.” Multiple working hypotheses, that’s what scientists do. It could be this or it could be this, it could be this.
But then I’d say “Tune in tomorrow [laugh], and we’re going to drive over there, and we’re going to see what we see.” And “tune in tomorrow” was something all the television people understood. So it was this wonderful opportunity to show the whole world, millions of people who were watching us on TV, how scientific discovery really works. You’ve heard the saying that some of the best scientific discoveries began with the words “well, that’s odd”.
But then somebody has the curiosity to follow up on it. We got to do that in real time, day after day, with millions of people watching. It was such a good experience that I made a point for years afterward as we continued to operate the rovers of taking it into my classrooms.
When I was first at Cornell and for many years, I taught mostly sort graduate-level courses, upper-level courses. But after the rovers landed, for the rest of my career teaching at Cornell, I taught only the big introductory courses, survey courses, the ones that get two or three hundred students. And, for years, I would start off every lecture with three or four minutes on here’s what happened on Mars since the class last met. If you’re not a science major, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that science is a static body of knowledge that you learn from a textbook. And it’s not. It’s not.
We know more about Mars today than we did 48 hours ago. Science is really a joyful, frustrating process of exploration and discovery and guesswork and getting it wrong, and then eventually maybe getting it right. Science isn’t like a lot of students think it is.
I always told my students in my introductory courses, “I don’t care if 10 years from now, you can name any of the moons of Saturn, or tell me how many there are. It doesn’t matter, OK. But I want you to come out of this course understanding better than you did coming in how science works.”
I remember a great example. We were driving with Spirit, and we did a maneuver where the wheel had dug up a little bit of a trench in the soil. And in that trench when we got the images back, the soil was as bright as white snow.
I remember the downlink came right before class on a Monday, and I went in, and I showed them the images, and said, “This just hit the ground about 45 minutes ago. Bright white soil. We’ve seen stuff like this before. It’s sulfate salts. It’s a pretty common occurrence. We know what we’re seeing here. We’ll go over and we’ll make some measurements on it to confirm that, but I’m sure that’s what it’s going to be, and I’ll tell you about it on Wednesday.”
Fifteen minutes before class [laugh] on Wednesday, downlink hits the ground, and it’s 91% pure silica. What? And I went into class, and I put up the x-ray spectrum, and I said, “OK, that peak there is silica. This stuff is silica. I don’t know why. I just saw this 15 minutes ago.
“I have no idea what this is. I don’t even have good hypotheses at this point. I know this has got to be important. Let me go off and work on it with my colleagues, and when we think we’ve figured something out, I’ll let you know.” And you could just see some of the students sitting there saying, “My parents are spending $50,000 a year for this?”
“The professor doesn’t even know what’s going on.” But that was the beautiful thing about it, that we got to show people this is how science really works. And in the early days of the mission, the first 60, 90 sols, something like that, when we were on TV every day, we got to do that for the whole world. So yeah, I did a lot of press conferences.
The problem with the press conferences was that for those early days during the nominal mission, we were all living and working on Mars time. The Martian day is 24 hours and 39 minutes long, so we all lived a day that was 24:39. It was awful. If the daily planning meeting starts at noon today, it’s going to be at 12:39 tomorrow, and 1:18 the day after that, and so on. Two and half weeks later, you’re waking up in the middle of the night.
And the press conferences were always at 8 a.m. Pacific. So, there were days when I would put in a 14-hour day at work, go home, have dinner, go to sleep, wake up three hours later, go into JPL for a press conference, go back home, and go back to sleep. So, the press conferences were tough. But they were a marvelous opportunity to not only just share our discoveries, which the people who paid for it deserve to hear about, but to actually show people how science can really work when it’s really working.
What did you find at the end of the day, and what did you not find at the end of the day?
Well, we found a lot more than we ever expected to find, that’s for sure. Very, very different results at the two sites. In fact, the way it worked out eventually was that each mission turned out to be two missions. For both rovers, we were able to land them onto one particular geologic terrain that we thought would be interesting, and then drive it to a completely different set of rocks that were different in age by hundreds of millions of years, completely different in their geology, chemistry, and mineralogy, with a totally different story to tell. That happened for both rovers.
For Spirit, it happened pretty early. For Spirit, it happened about 160 days into the mission. For Opportunity, it was many years. At the Spirit site, the initial landing site, which we had hoped would have interesting sedimentary rocks, there were none. It was just lava. Lava everywhere.
What we’d seen from orbit was the smooth, flat, bottom of a crater that had once had a water-filled channel flowing into it. So there was a good chance there was a lake there. But after those lake sediments were deposited — I still believe they have to be down there somewhere — they were buried with lava, and we couldn’t get at them. For the first 156 sols of the mission, we drove around on lavas that were pretty much identical everywhere.
Once we realized that, we sprinted to aa range of hills that we named the Columbia Hills, after the Columbia space shuttle, and then everything changed. The important discoveries made by Spirit were all in the Columbia Hills, and it was a story of a hot, wet, incredibly violent time early in Martian history. There were hot springs. There were explosive volcanic eruptions. There were impacts. It was a hot, steamy, violent place. Stuff was exploding, hot water burbling out of the ground, steam coming out of the ground. If you go to volcanic fumaroles, if you go to hot springs and geysers on Earth, they’re all teeming with microbial life. So, these were definitely habitable environments. Whether they were inhabited or not, we don’t know. But they were habitable.
The Opportunity site was quite different. The Opportunity site was all sedimentary rocks. These were what you would call dirty evaporites. They were formed when water came up to the surface, and evaporated away, and left salt deposits behind. But those salt deposits showed very clear evidence of having been laid down under very acidic conditions. They contained minerals that only form below a pH of five, and on Earth, typically, form a pH of three or two or one. Jarosite’s an example.
So, again, an aqueous environment, albeit one with a lot of wind blowing sediments around, and clear evidence of water transport of some of these sediments. Again habitable. There are organisms, acidophiles, on Earth that can live in very low pH environments. But is this the kind of place where life would’ve first taken hold? I don’t know. It seems like it would be pretty challenging. So, habitable, yes; a place where life might’ve originated, probably not.
Then after — oh, gosh, how many kilometers was it? Twenty-five, something like that. After many, many kilometers and many years of driving around on these wonderful sulfate-rich sediments, we finally reached the rim of what we named Endeavor Crater. And it was like when we first got to the Columbia Hills, everything changed.
All of a sudden, we were looking at completely different rocks. Lots of gypsum veins, lots of clay minerals, things that speak of aqueous conditions but a neutral pH instead of an acidic pH. Much, much older rocks. These were the oldest rocks that had ever been looked at with Spirit or Opportunity, older than anything that Curiosity is ever going to see, probably older than anything Perseverance is ever going to see. These are the oldest rocks that have ever been looked at on Mars.
And they told a story of, again, of aqueous conditions. But instead of the really acidic conditions that had existed out on the plains where the sulfate sediments were, this water you could drink, water that spoke of a probably much more habitable sort of environment.
I guess the point that I wanted to make by saying about how Spirit first had one mission, and then another, and Opportunity first had one mission, and then another, in both cases, those second missions, which were so fascinating, so interesting, and arguably more interesting than the first missions for both of them, were enabled by the longevity of the vehicle. OK. A ninety sol mission never would’ve made it.
When I first conceived of something like Spirit and Opportunity, I conceived of a single rover going to one site, and lasting for 90 days. I conceived a single mission. What we got was four: two rovers, each of which got to do two scientifically distinct missions.
How did you get involved in the Magellan mission?
Magellan, that was fun. This was — let’s see. Magellan was like —
— early ’90s, yeah. So, it was at a time [laugh] from ’87 to ’97, when most of my attention was devoted to writing these unsuccessful [laugh] Mars proposals. But I was young, had a lot of energy, had a lot of things that I wanted to do. And Magellan was happening.
I hadn’t been involved in the Magellan mission from the start, but they had what they called a participating scientist program where, shortly before arriving at Venus, individuals were invited to write proposals to become part of the Magellan science team. And I wrote a proposal, and it was successful, and I got to work on Magellan. And it was a fantastic mission. It was great fun.
Similar entrée to Cassini, which starts the same year for you?
No, Cassini was different because in the case of Magellan, the teams were already formed, the instruments were already built, the radar system was built. The thing was on its way to Venus, and about to arrive when I was given the opportunity to write a proposal. In the case of Cassini, I was on from the very beginning.
On Cassini there was an imaging experiment. It was what’s called a facility instrument. There wasn’t a PI. There was a team leader, and individuals wrote proposals to become part of that team. I wrote a proposal to become part of the Cassini imaging team. And, again, that proposal was successful, and so I got to work on Cassini.
Now, as it turned out, while I was very much involved in the development of the Cassini imaging system, when it finally came time to get to Saturn, see, my plan was — if you look at the timing — the Cassini science mission at Saturn was well after the anticipated end of the MER nominal mission. So, I was going to do Spirit and Opportunity until they died, and then I was going to jump over to Cassini. It didn’t work out that way.
Fourteen years of rover operations on Mars. I could’ve done less Mars rovers and more Cassini had I chosen to. But Spirit and Opportunity were things that I was so emotionally invested in that I had just devoted myself so completely to that I wound up devoting almost my entire attention during that timeframe to those, and I was not really very involved in operating the Cassini cameras that I had had a role in helping to usher into the world.
So, given how —
I did a lot more on Magellan than I did on Cassini, for example.
Given how laser-focused you were on Mars, was most of your interface with both Magellan and Cassini sort of focused on what value you could extract from that and apply it to Mars?
No, not at all. The little time that I spent working on Cassini imaging was, you know, interesting stuff for the moons of Saturn. But, again, I had almost no time for it, but no connection to Mars whatsoever. And, Magellan was mostly a welcome break from writing unsuccessful proposals —
— for Mars missions. [laugh] After one proposal, argh, you feel really determined, and, OK, let’s go write another one. And after the second proposal fails, you say, “Oh, man, that’s really discouraging. OK. I’ll write another one.”
Your third proposal fails, and you think, “Oh, man, I just can’t take much more of this. All right. I’m going to write one more. But if that one doesn’t succeed, I am done with Mars. In fact, maybe I’m done with planets.”
After my third proposal that had to do with Mars rovers failed, I got invited to go on an oceanographic cruise on the Atlantis 2, which was the support vessel for the Alvin deep submersible at the time. This was with a group from the University of Washington, right up the road here, that was a very interdisciplinary group of scientists that was doing work on hydrothermal systems on seafloor spreading ridges. And, of course, hydrothermal activity at the body of an ocean was something that I had gotten very interested in years and years before when I was working on Europa, and Europa habitability, because that’s one potential energy source that could support life on Europa.
Also, just going back to my earliest days as a geologist, doing something having to do with the study of the seafloor was something that fascinated me. So, I went on this cruise. I got to do a couple of dives on the Alvin, and go down on the seafloor, and I just decided, all right that was so cool. I enjoyed that so much. I will finish this fourth proposal. But if that one doesn’t get selected, screw it. I’m becoming an oceanographer. [laugh]
And I was ready. I mean, I had a bunch of research ideas. Not really an oceanographer but, you know, submarine geoscience. And I had all these ideas for research I was going to do and so forth, and then that fourth proposal was successful, and I haven’t been to sea again. [laugh]
Steve, given all of your advisory and committee work for NASA, besides —
— the benefit of paying it forward, of doing the service —
— what was most beneficial in terms of advancing the science for you?
Ah, interesting question. I think of all the committee work, service to the community work that I’ve done, probably the thing that I did that was most beneficial to the science actually was not any of my NASA advisory committee roles, although with some of those I think we made a mark. But it was chairing the last planetary decadal survey.
These decadal surveys come along, as the name implies, once every decade. The astrophysics community has been doing this going back to the ’60s. These decadal surveys have become very, influential in terms of setting a course for what NASA’s going to do with their space science program. And the planetary decadal that I led, which covered the decade that we’re in now, from like 2013 to ’23, our two highest recommendations were the missions that actually eventually became Europa Clipper and Perseverance, so Europa Clipper and then the start of Mars Sample Return.
So, I mean, now, the decadal is by no means [laugh] an individual effort or even a committee effort. It’s a community-wide effort. Your job is to help find and then effectively articulate a community-wide consensus on what the highest priorities are. So, I can claim no credit for personally having made any of that happen.
But having the opportunity to guide that consensus-building process, and watch as it evolves, and then nbe put in a position of articulating it to the Congress and NASA and so forth was very satisfying. I would say of all the NASA advisory committee work that I did, the most interesting and valuable was chairing the NASA Advisory Council. I did that for about five years during the time when Charlie Bolden was the NASA administrator.
It was a fascinating job for me because I had really, prior to that time, only been closely engaged with the space science part of NASA. But NASA is much, [laugh] much more than that. There’s of course the human spaceflight portion of it, but then there’s the aeronautics program. Ther are a lot of very interesting things that NASA does.
And the NASA Advisory Council has cognizance over everything that the agency does. It was fascinating to be able to peer into every corner of what the agency does. We reported directly to the NASA administrator. And the thing that I always hammered into the committee when I chaired it was that, yeah, we’re asked to provide advice, but all of our advice must be actionable.
If we give Charlie advice that he can’t follow, for whatever reason, whether it’s programmatic, political, not enough money and there’s no way to get it, any advice that we give him that is not actionable, we’ve wasted our time and his. So, I really tried very hard to chair the committee in such a fashion that the advice that we gave him was not only solidly based on the experience of what was a remarkable group of people — I had just a fantastic group of people in the NAC when I chaired it — but was actionable, was something Charlie could actually do something about. And hen the other thing that was great is that we would have three meetings a year. Two of those meetings would be typically at NASA headquarters, but one of them would be at one of the NASA centers.
And when you show up at a NASA center, especially some of the less visited ones, you go to Wallops or you go to Stennis or you to the ones that don’t get a lot of attention, you show up with the NASA Advisory Council and the NASA administrator in tow, boy, you get a tour. [laugh] You really get a tour. [laugh] So I got to see just all the cool things that go on at so many NASA facilities. It was just wonderful, wonderful fun.
And when you get to the point where you’re advising the administrator, and testifying before Congress, and that sort of thing, you feel like you have a chance at least to have your voice be heard. You’re still a little, tiny tugboat nudging a great big ocean liner. But you get a chance to have a little bit of an influence, and that’s pretty satisfying.
Steve, I’m sure you didn’t have any trouble convincing an editor that you had a book on your hands, but what were your motivations of all of them in writing Roving Mars?
OK. I didn’t want to write a science book. I didn’t want to write an engineering book. I wanted to write an adventure story.
Like the kind that you thought about when you were a kid?
Yes, exactly. The books that I pored over and loved and read were written by explorers, writing about their expedition, and how hard it was to get the damn thing funded in the first place, and then all the tribulations along the way, and then the discoveries and all the stuff that happened when they were doing it. And that was the kind of story that I wanted to tell. I wanted it to be a gripping adventure — which it was for those of us who got to live it.
That was what I was aiming for. So my experience writing my first and only book, getting a book contract and getting it published was very, very different from most people who decide they want to be an author. I had gold in my hands in terms of a subject matter — if the mission succeeded. So finding a publisher who was interested in the book was no problem at all. I found an agent right away, and he found a publisher right away.
But the contract was an interesting one. The contract had two very interesting aspects to it. One was, even though there was an advance and all of that, if both missions failed to land successfully, if the mission was a complete failure, I would give the publisher back my advance, my agent would give the publisher back his cut of the advance, and we’d all just walk away as if nothing had happened.
[laugh] Because nobody wants to read that book, right? [laugh] It means that they’re not gambling on the success of the landing. So, that was an unusual clause written into that particular book contract. The other one was that the final manuscript was due 180 days after the last rover died [laugh], which was about a year ago. [laugh] The rover mission started going on and on and on and on, and finally the publisher said, “Look, we know that you can take your time, but can we have a book, please?”
It was starting to look like these rovers were going to last a long time. I think the book ends somewhere around sol 250, and we went for like 5,000. [laugh] So, yeah, those two aspects of the contract were a little bit unusual. But what I wanted to do was tell an adventure story.
A broad technological question, of course, over 14, 15 years, technological advance happens exponentially, but you’re —
— stuck to some degree to what you already launched 14 —
— 15 years ago. How did you deal with that? What opportunities were there for upgrades, and how did you have to just stick it out with what you had from the beginning?
Once you’ve launched, there’s nothing you can do in the way of hardware upgrades. You had to stick it out with stuff you had at the beginning, and then you had to learn how to deal with a diminishing aspect of it over time. The hardware is what the hardware is, and you cannot change anything, and when something breaks, it’s broken for good.
But the software, we could upgrade. The software, we could make better, and we did multiple times over the course of the mission. Initially, we were upgrading the software to make the rover more capable, to teach it new tricks, to make it more effective based on just experience that we gained by operating it. We could make discoveries on Mars, and then change the software so that we could respond to those discoveries better. I’ll give you a very simple example.
One of the things, a lovely thing that we saw, and thjat had some very interesting science associated with it, was dust devils, these little whirling pillars of dust that go moving across the surface. We would occasionally see one of those pop up in an image just by chance. Oh, there are dust devils here. Wow. It sure would be nice to be able to make a movie of one of them, you know, take lots of frames.
And, so, we started by taking lots and lots of dust devil movies, and mostly downlinking a whole bunch of nothing. You know, you take a string of pictures, pointing where you hope there would be a dust devil at the time of day when you’d hope there’d be a dust devil, and there’d be no dust devil. [laugh] So, we finally decided, OK, we can’t keep wasting bits like this. So, we taught the rover how to look at the pictures for us, and decide whether or not there were dust devils in the dust devil movie, and only then downlink the frames that had dust devils in them. That’s a simple example. There were many others.
By late in the mission, we were actually making our rover on Mars available for software development. Developers who were going to work on Curiosity or maybe even Perseverance would come up with some new idea for a software tool that they wanted to put on that rover, and we would let them use our rover as a test bed to try out the software in the Martian environment, and see if it would do what they wanted it to do. So, we actually used it as a flight software test bed. So, the software got better and better.
But mostly, you have to work with the tools that you sent. If you get to Mars, and you find something that is not what you had in mind when you designed your tools — as I said, you’re trying to make a Swiss Army knife, but you’ve only got so many blades to work with — then you have to do your best to come up with a new way of operating things in a way that you never anticipated doing. I’ll give you an example. This came up very early.
When we first designed the microscopic imager, I conceived it with the idea that it would take a single frame, and it would show you a 3 x 3 centimeter area, would show you the textures of the grains in that area, and every time you did a measurement with a spectrometer, you would document it with a single frame with the microscopic imager. I always really thought of it only in terms of individual imaging. And then we get to Mars, and Eagle Crater where we first landed, there were these fantastic complexly textured sedimentary structures that were actually ripple marks formed as a consequence of water flowing across the surface.
But they were tiny. They were tiny little things, and you could sort of see them in the panoramic camera images, but at very low resolution because they were so small. Bt if you took a single image with the microscopic imager, you’d just see a little part of the feature. The answer was to take microscopic imager mosaics. We would take many of these images, and seam them together to get this super big image of a super small feature at very high resolution. It was like wallpapering with postage stamps It just was something I never anticipated doing, but the circumstances demanded it. And there were many examples like that.
So, you have to come up with innovative ways of using the tools that you sent, quite often not in the way that you conceived them for, to squeeze the most out of the circumstances. We also would do stereo microscopic imaging, which wassomething else that I hadn’t really thought much about. There were a lot of uses for that.
Then what happens is that you’re dealing with a degrading asset. Things break. Once an actuator seizes up and doesn’t work anymore, you can’t use that actuator, and you have to figure out how to work around it. And that happened. It happened on Spirit, and it happened on Opportunity.
On Spirit, the right front wheel failed, something like 800 sols into the mission. After that we had to drive backwards, dragging that dead wheel. The right front steering actuator on Opportunity failed, so we couldn’t steer the vehicle quiet as well. An elbow joint actuator on Opportunity’s arm failed, so we had to turn the whole vehicle to move then back and forth effectively.
But if you look at those vehicles, the way they’re built, there’s a lot of functional redundancy built into them. Even if all the steering actuators seize up, you could steer it like a bulldozer or a tank. You just run all the wheels on one side in one direction, and all the wheels on the other side in the other direction, and it’ll turn.
If the actuator that turns the panoramic camera or the infrared spectrometer that moves that in azimuth, if that seizes up, you just spin the whole rover to take a panorama. We never got to that point, but there are ways to compensate for all kinds of failures.
We also had electronics failures take place on board. Eventually, our flash memory degraded to the point where we had to do everything in RAM. There were all kinds of things that broke down over time, and we had to figure out workarounds. That was actually one of the parts of the mission that I enjoyed most. Even though I’m watching these creations of ours degrade before our eyes, working with a really clever bunch of engineers and scientists to figure out ways to keep on going was great. Oh, something else went wrong. OK, what are we going to do? Alright, let’s try this. Well, yeah, it looks like it’ll kind of work. That was great fun. It was a wonderful intellectual challenge. There wasn’t any of that happening in the first 90 sols of the mission or even in the first year of the mission. This was taking place in the out years.
At that point, we’re already in the books. It’s already a success. If the thing has failed, the thing has failed, and that’s OK. It’s an honorable death. So we didn’t have a lot at stake other than the science we were going to miss if we couldn’t figure out how to keep going. It was part of what really kept it interesting for years and years on end was the gradual degradation of the vehicles, and having to figure out how to compensate for it.
I’m curious how the fundamental mission changed. In other words, at the beginning, your question was essentially historical. It was about the past, about the past ability of life to be sustainability of life to be sustained on Mars. But I wonder as the years went on if part of it became sort of prophecy about future prospects of life on Mars that include everything from our terraforming to, you know, in a billion years, maybe there’s going to be something that wasn’t there three billion years ago.
Well, the specific tools that we built were geologic tools. They were there to read the record in the rocks. So anything like that would be a form of extrapolation. I suppose there was some of that. But mostly we were looking at an epoch in Martian history a long time ago when the climate was warmer and wetter, and that’s never coming back.
Mars took a one-way trip to freezing cold Mars, unless humans go up there and somehow figure out a way to change it. So, I wouldn’t say there was much of that. But, as time went on, we felt the freedom to spend more of our time looking at modern processes, looking at things that are happening on Mars today, the erosional processes that are happening on Mars today, the meteorological and atmospheric stuff.
Early on, the prime directive, if you will, was Martian habitability, so we were very focused on that. But, as time progressed, and as we answered many of the questions we were capable of answering, we were able to start looking at other things. And then other just weird stuff would suddenly pop up. We started — especially with Opportunity — discovering a lot of meteorites. Boy, I never saw that coming.
But we discovered a lot of meteorites, and we were able to do meteorite science, and try to understand what those meteorites, what their physical form had to say about the Martian atmosphere that they had descended through when they came and hit the ground, and that sort of thing. That’s something I never expected — the first time we found what I realized was a meteorite, I just started laughing. I just could not believe we had found such a thing. So yeah, your scientific focus does change over time.
When you tend to start looking at the meteorites and looking at the clouds and looking at the sand dunes and so forth is when you’re three years into a six-year trek across a plain of [laugh] identical sulfate sedimentary rocks. You’ve got Endeavour crater’s rim in the front windshield. You’re trying to get there as fast as you can, but also do some science along the way, and take what you can get. But then we got to Endeavour crater, and all of a sudden, boom, the focus was right in front of us on the ancient rocks, and the story that they had to tell. We were back to four billion years ago on Mars.
So, it wasn’t your focus but, of course, the habitability question is inevitable. Who are some of the people that were most interested in your findings?
What do you mean?
I mean Elon Musk, for example, was he paying attention?
[laugh] I don’t know. I have met Elon. I’ve talked to him. But we really talked about that. His interest in Mars — my sense — are more focused on Mars as a place for humans to survive and thrive, rather than a profound driving interest in understanding the science of Mars in the distant past.
But isn’t there an inherent connection there in finding out what the surface of Mars is like, extrapolating —
Oh, yeah, sure.
— that to habitability?
Well, it’s extrapolating it to future habitability.
Right, of course.
People are thinking about what it would be like to live on Mars, what it would take to colonize Mars. I think people’s thinking probably has been affected to some non-trivial degree by the experience that we’ve had with these vehicles on the Martian surface.
We were able to share with everybody who wanted to look for many years what it was like to be on Mars, at night, in the winter, in the summertime when the dust storms are happening, the winds, the clouds, Mars in all of its moods and all of its seasons. We were able to show that to the world. And, so, people who were thinking forward to the idea of space colonization, you know, they can look at our data, and get useful quantitative information, and also just a qualitative feel for what it would be like to venture there or to live there.
What did you learn about radiation exposure?
Very little. We didn’t have any instruments for doing that. That was not one of our objectives. I learned way more about radiation on Mars from being a member of the gamma ray spectrometer team on the [laugh] Mars Odyssey spacecraft than I ever did from doing the rovers. We just weren’t set up for that one.
A purely fun question: in all of the ways that Mars is represented in the movies, what generally does Hollywood get right, and what generally does Hollywood totally miss about Mars?
Well, that’s a difficult question to answer comprehensively because the way in which Hollywood has treated Mars over the years has been wildly different —
— from one movie to another. So, let’s talk just about one movie that really was obviously striving to get it right, and that’s The Martian.
I loved The Martian. I saw it I think three times. The one thing that The Martian got wrong was they really played fast and loose with atmospheric density. The atmospheric density was what they wanted it to be when it was in the service of the story for it to be that.
That storm at the very beginning with sand and gravel flying around, sorry, Mars just — Mars doesn’t do that. No way the storm’s going to be like that. I thought that was kind of lazy storytelling. There must’ve been another way to get Matt Damon stranded on Mars.
But, overall, they did very, very well. The thing that I really loved about it was the way that NASA and JPL were represented. There were a lot of things they had wrong. They had NASA headquarters in Houston, and stuff like that, but that didn’t really matter.
But a big part of the story was seeing the engineers on the ground be presented with this horrible technical challenge, and just saying, “OK, we’re going to figure this out. We’re going to solve this. We’re going to keep trying. We’re going to come up with things until we get something that’s going to work, and damn it, it is going to work.”
That rang true. That’s the JPL that I know and love. That’s the NASA that I know and love. And while some of the technical details were wrong, the only really glaring technical issue was the thing with the atmospheric density and the dust storm. Most of it really rang true.
Now, there was one other thing that they got wrong, and as soon as people finally go to Mars, no movie will ever be able to get away with getting it wrong again, and that’s the gravity.
Mars is one-third G, OK? And when Mark Watney is walking around, when Matt Damon is walking around inside his habitat, he’s at one-third G, and he’s going to be bouncing and bouncing. It’s not going to look like astronauts on the moon. It’s certainly not going to look like astronauts on Earth. It’s going to be uniquely Martian.
You can fly Mars gravity parabolas on these parabolic Vomit Comet aircraft, and you can be in Mars gravity. And I’ve talked to people who have spent plenty of time in Mars gravity, and it’s very, very different from being in Earth gravity. So, the very first time astronauts go to Mars, for real, and video comes back, no moviemaker is ever going to be able to [laugh] —
— to do a Mars movie without getting the gravity right, because everybody will know it’s wrong. [laugh]
Steve, you know what’s been missing in our conversation this past hour plus at this point is Cornell. Where is Cornell in your professional life during all of these years?
Well, it was my academic home. It was where I taught. It was —
So, during all these years, you’re doing like a 2:2, a 3:3? I mean, you’re teaching. You’re doing all of these things or no?
Cornell played a number of significant roles. They were very tolerant, and they put up with a lot from me because they recognized that it would be good for science but also good for Cornell to have a mission like this happen and succeed.
Every proposal that I submitted had a Cornell logo on the front cover, the institution submitting the proposal. Yeah, I was the PI, but the proposal gets submitted by an institution, and that was Cornell. They put a lot of effort and support into that, and I’m very grateful to them for that.
We did rover flight operations, our part of rover flight operations from the fourth floor of the Space Sciences building at Cornell for around 13 years. So, that was a significant role that Cornell played. Where it got most dicey, for me personally, was during the years that we were actually building the rovers, because that was very, very intense. We were doing a lot of testing. I needed to spend a lot of time at JPL.
There were a few years I commuted almost weekly to JPL. Normally at Cornell, if you’re teaching a three-credit course, you do a one-hour class on Monday, on Wednesday, on Friday. What Cornell let me do instead was I would teach an hour and a half on Monday and Wednesday.
So, I would teach Monday, teach Wednesday, head straight for Ithaca airport, fly to LAX, land in Los Angeles about 11 p.m. Los Angeles time, so 2 a.m. back on the East Coast. I’d spend all day Thursday, spend all day Friday at JPL. Spend Friday night at an airport hotel down at LAX, Saturday morning get on a plane, fly back home, have my one-day weekend on Sunday with my family, and then do it again the next week.
Where it really got interesting and challenging was the summers when my younger daughter, who was a very accomplished equestrian athlete, was doing horse shows. [laugh] What I would do is fly out to LA, do my thing at JPL, fly back to the East Coast to, say, Winchester, Virginia to catch the second day of a horse show. Do the horse show, trailer it back up to Ithaca, spend a few days in Ithaca, back out to California, and then Springfield, Massachusetts for a horse show. [laugh] And [laugh] —
— it was madness. [laugh] It was complete madness. So, there was some of that. Thje whole rover thing very much became sort of the family project, as was the horse thing.
Did it ever occur to you to set up shop at Caltech maybe?
No, because my family had very deep roots put down in the Ithaca area. My daughter’s horses and the barn where she rode were all there, and she was competing successfully at a national level. She was winning national championships, and she didn’t want to move. We had a lovely house on a lot of land out in the woods and you’re not going to find that in Pasadena.
I really, really, really cared about the upbringing of my kids, and having them have the childhood that I wanted them to have. And to have uprooted them from Ithaca, and moved them to LA at that time in their lives would’ve been way too disruptive. So, I just spent a lot of time on airplanes.
So, that’s all the personal considerations. The other one, the road less traveled, could you have done all of this simply as a NASA employee? I mean, what’s the value of that insider-outsider role that you played for so long?
I don’t know what it would’ve been like trying to do it from Ames because Ames and JPL have a complex relationship. Let’s just put it that way. Certainly, I was in a better position to be a principal investigator on a JPL mission as a university, a PI, than I would’ve been had I been a scientist at JPL.
Because if you’re a scientist at JPL — it’s a big organization. It’s got an org chart. There’s a hierarchy. And when you have an issue that you want to have addressed, you go to your immediate superior. And then if they decide to take it up to their immediate superior, et cetera. There’s this stack of management.
Whereas, as a loose cannon college professor from Upstate New York, if I’ve got a problem with a JPL mission, I call up my friend, the JPL Center Director Charles Elachi, and I say, “Charles, help,” [laugh. And I can just do that. I just bypass everything and just go straight to the person who was best positioned to solve the problem. I could go straight to the project. So, in the end, I think it was actually advantageous to be a principal investigator from a university as opposed to being in a NASA center certainly as opposed to being at JPL.
Steve, I can’t help but wonder if there was some connection between the end of the mission and your desire to move on from Ithaca.
Oh, very definitely. The mission ended. If you look at the time it took, it was 16 years to get to the launch pad, a year to get to Mars, and then 14 years on Mars. I had spent more than three decades of my career basically working on this one thing, all of it in this one place. And when the rovers died, I sort of — I needed something new. I needed a new challenge.
What happened was that I had been asked a couple of years before — I still don’t know exactly how this happened — but I’d been invited to Blue Origin to give a talk. The leadership of the company was there. Soon after that they invited me to be a member of a kind of a science advisory group that they had formed.
When did Blue Origin first register for you as an alternate way of doing things, before even perhaps they asked to meet with you?
Yeah, quite some time before that. By the time they were starting to do the first New Shepard flights, they were showing up on the radar as a company that was doing exciting things. So, I was quite aware of them.
They were pretty mysterious. They didn’t share a lot about what they were doing, and so I was pretty excited about getting a chance to go out, give a talk, and see the place, and it was fascinating. So then we stayed in touch. They got to know me. I got to know them.
I served on their scientific advisory group, and then when the rover mission was over, I really needed some new challenge. I was in my early 60s, approaching what is often thought of as retirement age. The thought of retiring filled me with despair. I love my work.
Yeah, your dad’s 94. You’re clearly a vigorous guy.
Yeah, I love what I do, and retiring just wasn’t something I wanted to do. I was a co-investigator on the Curiosity mission, for example. I had the opportunity to continue doing Mars rovers. But I’d kind of scratched that itch. I’d done the whole thing from initial concept and sketches on my whiteboard, to14 years’ worth of data in the Planetary Data System, with all the papers published and everything. So I’d kind of satisfied that urge.
The other thing that particularly intrigued me about Blue Origin was that Blue had this very, very long-term vision of what we as a company want to achieve: millions of people living and working in space. It’s going to take — our timescale for strategic planning is, like, a century. [laugh]
When I was early in my career, young, ambitious, I felt a sense of indebtedness to the Voyager team. I wanted to make a mark. To build something and fly it and make the whole thing happen from beginning to end in my career was something I desperately wanted, and almost emotionally needed to do. Having had the rover mission work out the way it did has been very liberating. Now with the rover mission behind me, and the way it turned out being what it was, I feel entirely comfortable sitting here at the age of 65, surrounded by a bunch of really good engineers with really great ideas. I feel entirely comfortable contributing what I can to an enterprise that I’m not going to live to see to completion.
Even if I’m still an active Chief Scientist at Blue Origin when I’m 80, which would be a nice goal to strive for, that’s 15 years away. Some of the stuff that we’re doing — well, no, a lot of stuff that we’re doing — will not have happened by then, and I’m OK with that. I don’t have to see it through to the end. It’s fun being here at the beginning, you know, of the exciting things that we’re doing.
And I get to contribute, I get to have fun with it, I get to work hard with smart people, which I’ve always enjoyed, and I don’t care if I see it through to the end. I don’t need that. I’ve done that.
What’s of most obvious value in all of your experience with NASA in this new endeavor?
[laugh] Being patient and calm in the face of adversity. When you are writing proposals that sometimes don’t succeed, when you are developing hardware that sometimes fails tests occasionally in spectacular and dismaying fashion, when you’re young, you haven’t been through those sorts of experiences, it can be really tough on you. If you’ve been through it a bunch of times, you can roll with the punches a lot better. If you’ve been through problems before, you can maybe recognize problems before they actually happen. One of my sayings that I like to use is I’ve been in enough shipwrecks to know an iceberg when I see one.
[laugh] So those years of experience, even though some of that experience was painfully won, being able to not just benefit from that personally but to be able to share that knowledge and that perspective with engineers who are as ambitious as I ever was and twice and smart, to be able to share that with them and help them deal with whatever adversity happens to come our way, that’s a rewarding aspect of the job. I can sort of serve as a mentor to people.
Two big questions to round out our talk and, again, I’m asking this — the full caveat — you’re speaking in your own capacity, right?
To contrast the sense of adventure all the way from when you were a boy to the reality that part of having millions of people in space obviously is the adventure, but part of it is also a grim reality that we might need it because we’re screwing up our planet, and we’re doing it so fast.
To what extent are you thinking about that, and to what extent is that a motivation scientifically that this is not exclusively about adventure?
It’s certainly not exclusively about adventure. It’s motivated by economic factors. It’s motivated by things like climate change and so forth. But I don’t see people living in space as a plan B for humanity. I don’t see people, millions of people living and working in space as a way to completely escape because we’ve completely screwed up Earth to the point where it’s uninhabitable.
So, there’s no decoupled space civilization from planet Earth? If planet Earth doesn’t work out, there’s no space civilization?
That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. Rather, I see moving some heavy industries, moving some forms of power production, moving some activities that you’d really rather not have taking place on the Earth’s surface, moving those out into space so that the planet that is left behind clean itself up some, that the humans who wind up staying on Earth, which will be the majority of them at least for a very long time to come, have a good place to live. So, it’s millions of people living and working in space to benefit Earth —
— to benefit humanity. That’s the real goal. That’s what we’re striving for, and we’re right at the beginning. We’re coming in on the ground floor, and it’s an exciting, exciting place to be, and an exciting time.
The most obvious spectrum in asking the fundamental questions of “are we alone?” is, you know, on the one hand, how could we possibly be? The sun is not that unique. There’s lots of Earth-like planets out there. For sure, there’s other lifeforms. And on the other is, well, maybe not. Maybe just —
— maybe not. Of all the things that you’ve learned, has your position on that shifted over time? Do you feel more or less confident one way or the other, and how might Blue Origin help clarify those questions?
Well, on the issue of “is there life elsewhere?” I get asked the question all the time, you know, “What do you think? What’s your guess? What are the odds?” And the response that I always give is, “I don’t know.”
And I say that not to dodge the question but to make what I think is an important point. We all want there to be life out there. We all want that. But one of the biggest mistakes that you can make as a scientist is to to reach conclusions in the absence of adequate data. The saying that I’ve heard people use is, “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.”
You don’t want to make that mistake. So yeah, sure, there are lots of planets out there, yeah, sure, there have been habitable niches on planets in our solar system. That’s what we know. Those are favorable indicators.
But I think the right thing to do is rather than reaching a conclusion in the absence of adequate data, go out and design a better experiment. Send a rover to Mars. Send a submarine to Europa. Build a telescope that can really resolve planets around other stars. Let’s get some real data, and then we’ll have a conversation.
When I was young, there were no exoplanets. Nobody knew about them. Now, we’ve got thousands, and it’s wonderful. And that’s real data. So, are planets a commonplace thing in the universe?
Yeah, they are. We know, right? That’s a discovery that has been made over the course of my lifetime, and it’s wonderful. That’s the kind of thing we need. You need data. You need facts. So, life… I don’t know. [laugh]
But you do know that it’s worth pushing further to find out?
I certainly believe it, yeah, you bet.
Steve, this has been phenomenal. Thank you so much.
This has been fun.