For his work making the Mars Exploration Rover mission a compelling saga for millions of people, Steven W. Squyres, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy and principal scientific investigator for the mission, has received the 2009 Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society.
The Sagan medal recognizes a planetary scientist for excellence in public communication. Squyres will receive the medal during the AAS's Division for Planetary Sciences annual meeting, Oct. 4-9, in Puerto Rico.
Quick to share credit with the entire Mars rover mission team at Cornell and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Squyres said he has always taken seriously the responsibility of giving people -- the taxpayers who have bankrolled the mission -- a clear window into what they are doing on Mars.
"We feel very strongly that the people who pay have a real right to find out in very clear, simple terms what they're getting for their $900 million," Squyres said.
Since January 2004, when the first rover, named Spirit, bounced down on the red planet, the Rover team has maintained a publicly accessible database of images taken by the rovers. Atypical of most NASA missions, the rover mission has allowed people to access data almost immediately. It was a conscious decision by the rover team, Squyres said, to pipeline the data straight to the Web.
"If I'm asleep and you're awake, you can see the pictures from the rover before I do," he said. "And what that has done is it's really enabled people to share in this voyage of exploration."
Squyres hopes these efforts, including a Web site that provides updates of rover activities, has inspired young people to pursue careers in science and engineering.
"NASA does all kinds of wonderful things in space, from cosmology to gamma ray spectroscopy," Squyres said. "But try explaining gamma ray spectroscopy to a third-grader. It's hard. But you know, these are robots looking at rocks. It's not that complicated. What that means is this mission is almost uniquely accessible to people."
As a Cornell graduate student Squyres '78, Ph.D. '81, worked closely with Sagan. "Carl really pioneered, in a very important way, the way in which scientists interact with the media and the public," Squyres said. "To receive an award that's named after him for trying to do the same sort of thing that he did so brilliantly is a real honor."