STEVEN W. SQUYRES: It's very hard to put in perspective. We originally conceived of this-- if you go back to the original idea, the original idea was one Rover, 90 days, 600 meters. Explore around in a little local area. It was a simple, pretty well-conceived, pretty well-defined, rather straightforward geology experiment at one tiny place on Mars-- that was what we originally conceived many, many years ago.
What it has turned into is humanity's first overland voyage of exploration across the surface of another planet. And its wonderful. It's going to be surpassed by Curiosity. Curiosity will be surpassed by other missions. But you only get to do something like this for the first time once. And to have had the enormous privilege of being part of that, it's just been such an adventure. It's wonderful.
SPEAKER: 3, 2, engine ignition, and liftoff of the Delta 2 rocket with the Mars Exploration Rover.
STEVEN W. SQUYRES: When we did launch-- that was funny. It was many, many years of effort to get to the launch pad. And I had always expected that launch was just going to be this joyful moment when all this work came to fruition and we sent the thing off into space.
And the reality when we actually launched was very different from that. My feelings were not what I expected.
I was scared. I felt like we had done the best job we could in the time that we had of testing the vehicles and preparing them for flight. But you always have this nagging concern in the back your head-- did we forget something? Was there something more that we could have done? But we were just out of time, it was time to go. So I was nervous about what the vehicle's fate was going to be.
And then the really strange thing about launch was we had worked so hard on these vehicles and in the same room with them hours, days, weeks, months at a time. Touching them, nurturing them, building them, creating them. And then you put them on top of a rocket and you send it into space, and it's just gone.
My single most memorable moment over the entire MER project, from start to today, was Sol 12-- the 12th Martian day-- of Spirit's mission. And that was the day that we drove the Spirit Rover off of the lander and onto Martian soil. It was, like, a 3 meter drive. But it was-- to me-- the culmination of 16 years of work, of trying to get a vehicle that could do science onto the surface of Mars.
I think if you try to sum it all up, what you would say is that we have found that Mars, in the past, was the kind of world that probably could have supported life. It's a cold, horrible, dry, nasty, miserable place today. But in the past, it was warmer. It was wetter. There was water below the surface. There was water that came to the surface. It was very different at the two landing sites.
At the Opportunity site, you had acid groundwater that would seep out of the ground and form little puddles and pools, and evaporate away and make salt deposits.
At the Spirit site, it was a violent place. There were explosions. There were impacts. Volcanoes going off. Steam vents, maybe geysers. It was a very, very different place from today.
Just recently-- I mean, literally, just in the past six months to a year-- discoveries of very concentrated clay deposits at the Opportunity site, 35 kilometers away from where we landed. But shows evidence that there was water that seeped through fractures that was not acid. It was water that you could drink.
Right now, with Opportunity facing certainly, the biggest driving challenge, mobility challenge that we've ever faced-- this is real hardcore core Martian mountaineering. We've got some real tough stuff ahead of us to climb.
On top of that, we have got fabulous science out ahead of us. And I don't quite really know what to expect. There are some big questions about what we're going to find. But from orbit, we see compelling evidence that this is a place out ahead of us on the rim of Endeavour crater, where there are clay minerals and concentrations far greater than anything that we've seen before.
Endeavour crater lay-- it was going to be more than 15 kilometers of driving to the south. And it seemed impossibly far away. I didn't see how we could ever really hope to get to Endeavour. But at the same time, I felt very strongly that whatever our next goal was, it needed to be one that was worthy of this Rover, this team, and this project.
And we could have just noodled around on the plains till the wheels fell off, but it just, it wasn't the right-- it didn't feel right. What felt right was picking some distant impossible goal and going for it.
And the beauty of Endeavour was Endeavour has this rim that sticks up real high. We're climbing Endeavour's rim now. And so for miles before we got to it, for years before we got to it-- you could see the rim of Endeavour sticking up like islands out of a sea of sulfate salts, sort of, beckoning us to get there.
And it took three years of driving, 60 meters in an Navcam panorama, 60 meters and a Navcam panorama day after day after day. But we got there. We got there. It took three years and we made it.
And as soon as we pulled up to the rim of that crater, everything changed. It was like a new mission, new landing site. It's like it started all over, again. And it's been fantastic ever since.
It would be easy to look now, at the success that this mission has become and to look at it and think to yourself, oh, boy. Those guys really must know what they were doing. We didn't know what we were doing. We were-- if you're trying to do something that's never been done before, there's no way to know what you're doing. There's no place to look it up. There's no guidebook. There's no set of instructions. You just have to figure stuff out.
How does it feel? We're tired. I've been doing this nine years and nine months longer than I thought we would. But it's wonderful.
We went into this-- honestly-- with big ambitions. We went in this to try to transform our understanding of Mars. And that's hard to do in 90 days, but turns out, if you have 10 years, you can come pretty close. So I feel good. I feel real good about it.
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Steve Squyres, Cornell's Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy and the scientific principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, looks back on a decade of exploring the Red Planet -- a mission that was originally supposed to last 90 days.