He sees science as the manifestation of curiosity — a way of figuring things out — and this week, Steven Squyres helped bring NASA and the nation to Mars.
"I can't ever remember not wanting to be a scientist. … [I had] just a curiosity about how things work," said Squyres. "That's really what science is just trying to figure stuff out, and I like figuring stuff out."
Last Saturday night, after traveling 300 million miles through space and making a fiery descent into the Red Planet's atmosphere, NASA's Spirit rover landed safely on Mars, sparking celebration in Mars Mission Control in Pasadena, Calif. The flawless landing was a morale boost to a space program that had had a rough year following the Columbia space shuttle disaster last February.
Just days into its three-month mission, the rover began sending postcard images back to Earth, giving hope to scientists that they will be able to discover whether there is life on Mars and that astronauts will someday be able to explore the planet.
"The way this vehicle lands, you can have a strong gust of wind at just the wrong moment or a sharp pointy rock at just the wrong place," Squyres said. "Everything can go perfectly, and it can still kill you."
Exploring Life’s Beginning
Squyres will oversee the Spirit rover's progress as it beams back images and attempts to reflect a sense of Mars' history. To Squyres, the Mars mission embodies what space exploration is all about.
"It's not going to fill in the potholes. It's not going to put a roof over people's heads," he said. "What it does is it helps to address really fundamental questions of who we are, where we came from, by which I mean we can learn how life came about."
Squyres, 47, is married and has two children. He splits his time between NASA in California and teaching astronomy at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He first realized he wanted to devote his life to space exploration when he was a geology student at Cornell.
"I went into the place where they kept the pictures that the Viking orbiter was sending back from Mars at that time, and I started flipping through those pictures," Squyres said. "I came out of that room four hours later knowing exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
"What I liked about the planets and what really got me going on planetary exploration was the ability to take on a whole new world that nobody knew hardly anything about," Squyres added.
A New Beginning for Space Exploration?
The Spirit rover found traces of minerals that could have formed in an ancient lake believed to have once swamped its landing site, NASA announced today. It remains stationed atop its lander and is not expected roll onto Mars' soil until Jan. 15 or Jan. 16 at the earliest.
On the heels of the early success of Spirit's mission, senior administration officials said President Bush is planning to send astronauts back to the moon around the year 2013 and an astronaut mission to Mars by around 2020. The White House said Bush will describe his ideas for long-term direction of the space program next Wednesday.
Squyres supports any human space exploration. But for now, he is excited about Spirit's mission and can't wait to show the public more of the rover's findings.
"This mission is something that cost $800 million, and the American public paid to make that happen," he said. "I feel we have — all of us that have the privilege of participating in an adventure like this have an obligation to share that with the people who enabled it."
And so Steven Squyres is World News Tonight's Person of the Week.