As a 21-year-old junior at Cornell University in 1977, Steve Squyres saw a notice for a course on Mars. It was as if the distant world was speaking to him.
"Here was a whole planet that no one knew — like a blank canvas," said Squyres, principal investigator for NASA's twin Mars rovers. "I walked out of that room four hours later knowing exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."
Squyres leads the team of scientists who are measuring and mapping the Martian landscape. They use such instruments as panoramic cameras, a thermal imager that tracks the heat given off by soil and rocks, a microscope and even a rock abrasion tool — RAT for short — that grinds away a few millimeters from stones and boulders to peek beneath their surfaces.
If the rovers operate as planned, Squyres will help direct their every move — where they roam, which rocks they examine and which scientific tools they use to peer and probe — to help ensure that the unique project finds what it came for.
Now a professor of geology at Cornell, Squyres spent more than 10 years preparing to live his dream of exploring Mars.
With the successful landing of Spirit, his dream has come true.
"When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by exploration" — the deep sea, the Antarctic, walking on the moon — "blank spots on a map always turned me on," he said.
In many ways, it was also bad timing that helped lead Squyres to Mars.
His passion for rock climbing led him to study geology — "a way to get paid for climbing a mountain."
But he soon realized that the 20th century was not the golden age of that science. Most of the globe had been explored. Plate tectonics — a theory that describes how the Earth's great land masses move — had already been revealed.
"The geologists who have worked on this planet for the last 200 years have done a pretty good job," he said. "Geology, to me, kind of felt like filling in the details."
Being an astronaut was also out — "born too late for Apollo [and its lunar missions] and too early for whatever comes next," such as a human voyage to Mars, he said.
The next best thing was to be a remote explorer, using telescopes, satellites and robots to answer fundamental questions about life itself. For a geologist, the face of Mars is like the Holy Grail.
"The surface is loaded with 4-billion-year-old rocks," which may tell stories about an ancient past that can't be discovered anywhere else, he said. "Mars stands out among all the other destinations that we might reach to as the one other place where life as we know it [may] possibly have taken hold," he said.
Squyres, who turns 48 Friday, joined his first space mission as a young graduate student. The late, legendary space scientist Carl Sagan picked him to work on Voyager — a probe to the outer planets of the solar system that is still sending data more than 26 years later.
A New Jersey native, Squyres earned his PhD in geology from Cornell in 1981.
His first two Mars missions ended in bitter disappointment. He worked on the imaging team for Mars Observer, which launched in 1992; a fuel-valve failure caused an explosion that sent the orbiter adrift before it reached its target. He was also a scientist for the Russian Mars '96 probe — which crashed back to Earth.
But the experience gained during those setbacks, plus his work on the Cassini mission to Saturn and on NASA's asteroid explorations, has made Squyres one of the world's leading space scientists.
He was one of the originators of the Mars rovers more than a decade ago — a journey that involved overseeing the design and creation of the instruments to view and sample the Martian landscape.
Squyres weathered the dark days of the failure in 1999 of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander, years of testing, and finally, the Mars rover launches last June and July, followed by months of waiting restlessly as the crafts neared their target.
Now his dream machine, the rover Spirit, is on the surface of the planet, and its identical twin, Opportunity, is scheduled to touch down Jan. 24.
His colleagues said Squyres was a good match for leading the scientific effort on Mars.
Arizona State University geologist Phil Christensen, principal investigator for an instrument that maps Martian terrain based on the heat given off by rocks and soil, has known Squyres since their grad-student days, when they played poker together in hotel rooms during scientific meetings.
"He's a generalist who's close to being a specialist in 50 fields," Christensen said.
Like a baseball manager, Squyres turns highly talented people — most with egos to match — into a functional team.
He has led "plenty of meetings where everyone thinks they are smarter than everyone in the room," and turned them partnerships, said Louis D. Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, a research and education group cofounded by Sagan.
Squyres credits his mentors, Sagan and Joseph Veverka, chairman of Cornell's astronomy department, with helping him form an ability to quickly grasp the keys to complex problems.
He said Sagan — considered a masterful author and media personality — made him understand the importance of communicating to the public.
"When the American people have given you $800 million to do something so audacious as sending robots to Mars, you really owe it to people to let them know what they are getting for that money, clearly and understandably," Squyres said.