In early 2004, after 17 years of toil, a team of NASA researchers led by planetary scientist Steve Squyres, 50, drove two lumbering space rovers on Mars for the first time. At best, Squyres's group hoped the 850-million-dollar contraptions would last three months, range perhaps a mile, and take some of the first samples of Martian soil. Instead, the two vehicles, dubbed Spirit and Opportunity, have rolled strong for two years, traveled a combined seven miles, found evidence of water, and provided NASA a much needed success story. On January 27, following Squyres's book of the same title (published by Hyperion), Roving Mars (Buena Vista) hits IMAX screens nationwide. Adventure talked to Squyres from his home in Ithaca, New York, about his extraordinary telecommute.
After 657 days of roving do you feel like you've been to the red planet yourself?
I've certainly gotten a good feel for the place. After two years, I know what it's like during every season. I have a favorite time of day—early evening when shadows are long. I even know what it's like to climb a mountain and look off in all directions.
And do you like what you see?
It's beautiful. Desolate. Stark. Mars is painted from a very subtle palette: from blacks and grays to butterscotch, tan, and salmon. If you've spent any time in the desert Southwest, you know how dramatic the vistas can be. And on Mars, there are mountains that are 16 miles (26 kilometers) tall, canyons that are four miles (six kilometers) deep. The topography is breathtaking.
So, despite the cramped, six-month trip, you'd sign on for a Mars mission?
In a heartbeat.
What's a realistic timetable for a manned flight?
They've been saying 20 years in the future for 20 years. So, I'd say 20 years from now.
For someone accused of siding with machines in the man-versus-machine debate in exploration, you sound pretty confident that a manned mission will happen.
I think that's a false debate. In Antarctica I did some underwater research in lakes covered with ten to sixteen feet (three to five meters) of ice year-round. We would drill holes in the ice, then put underwater vehicles into the water to take pictures and video and map the lake bottom. Only then would we suit up with scuba gear and go into the lakes ourselves. Our productivity increased dramatically because we had those robotic precursors. We were already familiar with the environment, so we could make the most of our limited time underwater. You don't use either robots or humans. You use both.
How might expeditions to Mars resemble expeditions on Earth?
Actually, Antarctica is a pretty good analogy. I love the idea of Mars being colonized—it's a lovely, romantic idea. But nobody lives in Antarctica, and Mars is far less hospitable. I don't think we'll ever have permanent settlements there so much as South Polelike research bases that support visiting scientists, engineers, and technicians.
Where on Mars would you visit first?
The Valles Marineris. If you were to set up the first national park on Mars, it would have to be the 2,500-mile-long (4,023-kilometer-long), six-mile-deep (ten-kilometer-deep) Valles Marineris. It dwarfs the mile-deep (1.6-kilometer-deep) Grand Canyon and must be just a spectacular place.
As a mountaineer, I expected you to say 16-mile-tall (26-kilometer-tall)
That looks sexy from satellite images, but the slope is actually very gradual. It wouldn't be much of a climb.
NASA administrator Michael Griffin recently said the agency needs five billion dollars to continue the shuttle program. Does that put Valles Marineris further out of reach?
No, it just means we are getting realistic about it. You can dream and scheme to your heart's content, but unless you have the dollars to back it up, that's all it is going to be. We're just starting to get serious.
Photographs courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell; Norman Steeff/Hyperion
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