Franklin Laureate Database
Steven W. Squyres, Ph.D.
Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy
Ithaca, New York
Subject: Earth Science
Award: Benjamin Franklin
Citation: The 2007 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science is presented to Steven Squyres for the discovery and elucidation of water on Mars through the "robotic geologists" of the Mars Exploration Rovers. Squyres and the MER team produced fundamental insights into the geology and climatology of Mars. These have resulted in major advances in our understanding of the potential for life on other planets and of life's evolution on Earth.
It is a rare occurrence when the principal investigator on a science project can capture a whole nation's fascination, but Steven Squyres did just that when he led the Mars Exploration Rover project, which landed the rovers Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in January 2004. The daily photos of sunsets over Mars's horizon, dramatically wind-swept dunes, and deep Martian trenches helped re-ignite interest in the U.S. space program. The rovers did more than send back pretty pictures; they found evidence that there was once water on Mars, and they have imaged the surface of the red planet to help scientists understand how it formed. While the mission was originally expected to last just 90 days, the rovers continued to work long past their planned lifetime and are still gathering data on the surface of Mars over three years later (as of February 2007). Squyres oversaw the science on it all.
That Squyres has captured the public's imagination comes as no surprise given how much impact he, himself, has felt from planetary science. Squyres grew up in Wenonah, New Jersey where he was close enough to The Franklin Institute that it helped inspire him with an early love of science as a child. He earned his bachelor's degree in geology in 1978 from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in planetary science from the same institution in 1981. While at Cornell, he talked his way into a university's archive room filled with the latest Viking orbiter pictures of Mars. He thought he would stay for 15 minutes, but exited four hours later -- with his life transformed.
After he graduated, Squyres spent five years at NASA's Ames Research Center before returning to his alma mater to become a professor of astronomy. His enthusiasm for studying new worlds has involved him in a multitude of interesting NASA exploration projects over the last three decades. From 1978 to 1981, he helped analyze imaging data from Voyager's encounters with Jupiter and Saturn (at the request of Carl Sagan). Throughout his career he has helped oversee science and specific science instruments for missions including the Magellan mission to Venus, the Mars Observer, the Mars Polar Lander, Mars Odyssey, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, Mars Express, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. While much of his NASA work has centered on Mars, his ground-based research focuses on geophysical modeling of all the planets, as well as some large moons, in an effort to understand the geological forces at work on these distant worlds.
Squyres has written the book Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet. Among his honors he boasts the Harold C. Urey Prize (1987), the Carl Sagan Award of the American Astronomical Society (2004), and the Wired Rave Award (2005). He has served as chair of the NASA Space Science Advisory Committee and as a member of the NASA Advisory Council.