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Gasp! Shock! Horror! A well deserved award!

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At a time when it seems award ceremonies are happening every other night, when so-called “celebrities” can win awards for blowing their noses or carrying a tiny dog around in their handbag, and in the week when the “entries” for the Turner prize went on view in London – amongst them a pile of grey dust that used to be a jet engine, and this papier mache ‘sculpture’…

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…and a picture of a builder’s bulging bottom, I kid you not – it is an absolute delight to hear about an award that’d been given a) for something important, and b) to the person who actually deserves it.

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Dr Steve Squyres, “the man behind the Mars rovers”, has been awarded the prestigious Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science. And the news has left each and every space enthusiast with an interest in Mars, and the exploration of the solar system, with a huge, Cheshire Cat grin on their face! 🙂

To give you the background to this story, click here  to read the official press release from JPL, and here’s the story s reported by one of the newspapers of Cornell University, where Dr Squyres is based…

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 (http://dps.aas.org/press/).

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.”

Now, anyone who has even a passing interest in Mars will know just how hard Steve Squyres has worked to make the missions of the Mars Exploration Rovers the incredible success they are. He’s dedicated more than a decade of his life to designing, building, launching and operating the twin rovers, and since they landed he has been a fantastic scientific ambassador, not just for NASA but for the world of science in general. Funny and sharp, friendly and generous, he’s an amazing person, respected and admired around the world.

The main reason Steve has been given this award is for making the MER mission so media- and public-friendly. Steve personally ensured that all the images – ALL the images – taken by the rovers would be put up on the web, as soon as possible after they were received here on Earth, to allow everyone to enjoy them and participate in the mission from the comfort of their own home, school, library or workplace.

It’s impossible to overstate just what a huge change this was. Before the MER mission, space enthusiasts and the public were almost starved of images and information; I well remember how, after an initial, breathless, excited initial flurry of press releases during a planetary encounter, such as Viking, Voyager and the like, we were drip-fed photographs, almost had to prise them out of the scientists’ hands, and we couldn’t really see any good ones until they were published in a special edition of ASTRONOMY, SKY & TELESCOPE or NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC three months after the encounter took place…

Now…? Ah, now we are spoiled rotten, absolutely rotten. Now we can go online and see images taken on Mars literally a matter of hours after they were received back on Earth. Now we can browse galleries of thumbnail images, click on them and have our monitor fill with a breathtaking portrait of a martian meteorite, mountain or sunset. Now we can take those “raw” images and, using an image processing program, like Photoshop, make amazing new, original images out of them – panoramas, mosaics, colourised close-ups, all manner of wonders. For free. With the full approval of NASA.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to check I’m not actually dreaming it all…

And this Brave New World all came into being because of Steve Squyres’ determination to make the MER mission open to everyone who wanted to join in. It is because of him – and, he’s quick to point out, because of the whole team he leads – that we have enjoyed stunning views from the summit of the Columbia Hills, the edge of Victoria Crater and the wide open plain of Meridiani.

This award is given to honour the work and spirit of the late, great, and greatly-missed Carl Sagan, the scientist and broadcaster who turned a whole generation on to astronomy, space exploration and science in the late 70s with his multi award-winning series COSMOS.

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Sagan has been hailed countless times as one of the greatest communicators of our age, and one of the most successful popularisers of science in history. So, for Steve Squyres to be given this award is an honour in the truest sense of the word. And it is just reward for his tireless dedication to supporting and promoting the MER mission on a popular level at the same time as actually working on it in his capacity as a scientist. Steve must have lost count himself of the number of interviews he’s done with print and broadcast journalists, of the number of documentaries he’s contributed to and of the number of books he’s been asked to write something for, as well. But he never lets up, just keeps going and going, like his Mars rovers, and as 2009 starts to creep towards 2010, and both rovers are still working, it looks like he’s not going to geta  rest any time soon. So I hope he is as delighted to receive this award as everyone “out here” is thrilled for him to have been given it. 🙂

I must confess to having some personal interest in this wonderful news. I’ve been a fan of Steve Squyres for a long, long time, ever since the MER missions were in the planning stage. But I became a real fan in 2002 when, even though he was ridiculously, unbelievably busy preparing Spirit and Opportunity, he took time to do an online interview with me for the website “New Mars”. You can find that interview here…

http://www.newmars.com/2002/06/18/the-rovers-return

I was literally stunned that someone as important – and as busy! – as Steve would spare the time to talk to, well, to “someone like me”, I guess, just a space enthusiast who wanted to ask a few questions for a website. But he did, and I think that’s one of the reasons why the MER missions have been so important and life-changing for me. By having had some contact with the person behind them, the rovers seemed to take on much more significance for me. They became more than just names, and diagrams; they became part of my life.

They still are, of course, as anyone who visits this blog knows all too well. And I am still a huge fan of Steve Squyres, both as a scientist and a person. He’s been good enough to say kind things about my Mars rover poems over the years, and has taken the time to answer quite a few emails too – very helpful for an Outreacher, I can tell you!

And, of course, I was lucky enough to meet him during my visit to JPL last year (OMG that’s almost a year ago!!!). Well, I say “lucky”,;I wasn’t lucky at all, I was set up by the amazing people there, who arranged for me to ‘accidentally bump into’ Steve as I walked down a corridor…

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I’ll admit, I was star-struck, and stood there for the first minute or so feeling like a dazed, 9 yr old girl meeting her favourite boy band popstar. But I recovered.. eventually… and enjoyed a great chat with Steve about the MERs, about UMSF and about our mutual love of Mars.

…which would have been enough of a treat for me, to be honest, but then Steve took us upstairs, to the main MER planning room, and had some photos taken with us, standing next to the full size model of a MER…

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(and before anyone says anything, yes, I WAS happy… I was delighted! I just have that blank look on my face because a) I was still in shock and b) I loathe, detest and hate having my picture taken!!)

So… when I heard that Steve Squyres had been awarded this medal I was absolutely delighted. Thanks to Steve, millions of people around the world have, in a way, been able to walk across Mars, seeing for themselves its stark, beautiful landscapes, and experiencing the thrill and joy of adventure, exploration and discovery.

I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.

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4 Responses

  1. Awesome! He deserves it too. I’ve met him a couple times myself, but not in front of a rover like you did. He is a guy that has the coolest job, and you can tell that he is very excited to tell about it, and keep telling about it – even after 2000+ sols.

    🙂

    Tom

  2. I just finished reading ‘Roving Mars” last week. if anyone deserves this is Steve Squires. his passion about mars and the MER Mission is contagious. he was also a major reason for rekindling my fascination with astronomy and mars.

  3. A terrific tribute to a most remarkable & influential person, Stu; well done!

  4. […] seems nostalgia is in the air as Beyond Apollo, 21st Centrury Waves, Cumbrian Sky, and The Gish Bar Times are all taking time to remember times gone by. Beyond Apollo looks to […]

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