NASA Senior Engineer Kobie Boykins talks About Exploring Mars. And I was There to See it!

As part of National Geographic Live, Chief Engineer Kobie Boykins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been touring the world of late. As part of the program’s goal of having featured speakers share their behind-the-scenes stories, Boykins has been showcasing the accomplishments of NASA’s Mars robotic exploration programs – of which he played a major role.

This week, his tour brought him to my hometown, where he delivered a presentation to a packed house at the Royal Theatre here in of Victoria, BC. Titled “Exploring Mars”, Boykins shared personal stories of what it was like to be an integral part of the team that created the Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers. I had the honor of attending the event, and being able to do a little Q&A with him after the show.

When it comes to the exploration of Mars, there are few more qualified than Boykins, whose work with NASA JPL goes back to the Mars Pathfinder mission of 1997. It was at this time that Boykins, while still a college student, helped fabricate the cleats used on the Sojourner rover’s wheels. Since then, he has gone on to lead the team that designed the solar arrays that powered the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

Kobie Boykins speaking as part of his Nat Geo Live “Mars Exploration” lecture. Credit: National Geographic

He and his design team were also responsible for developing the actuators on the Mars Curiosity rover and was the supervisor of the mobility and remote sensing teams (MAST) for Curiosity and Mars 2020. And when it comes to engaging the public on the benefits of space exploration and sharing his inspiration, Boykins is a veteran there too.

In 2002, Boykins joined “Marsapalooza”, a team of young scientists who toured in order to awareness of the Mars Exploration Project. In 2003, he became part of NASA’s M-Team, which lectured nationally to students regarding careers in the STEM fields. And by 2006, he was featured in the JASON Project Expedition “Mysteries of Earth and Mars“, a curriculum program designed to inspire middle schoolers to pursue careers in science.

The presentation began in earnest with Boykins sharing anecdotes of what it is like to be an engineer working on a NASA mission and what inspired him to become a NASA engineer in the first place. As a native of Nebraska, Boykins grew up in an area where there was little light pollution. On a clear night, he and his sister would climb onto their roof to look up at the night sky and contemplate the possibilities.

The focus then shifted to the exploration of Mars and a lesser-known aspect of things. With a focus on two programs – the Mars Exploration Rover (Spirit and Opportunity) and the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity and Mars 2020) – Boykins provided a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes at JPL and what it is like to be an engineer working on the robotic explorers.

This began with Boykins sharing official NASA animations of the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers leaving Earth and journeying to Mars in 2003 and 2011. This included the launch aboard two multi-stage rockets (a ULA Delta II Heavy and an Atlas V, respectively), months of traveling between the planets, and then controlled landings involving parachutes and/or inflatable balls and skycranes.

Throughout, he provided a play-by-play of the technology involved, the extensive testing and planning that went into the launch, flight, landing, and deployment of each rover. As Boykins made clear during the course of his presentation, a considerable amount of time and preparation goes into the most basic of activities, whether it is getting to Mars or commencing science operations once on the surface.

And given the time lag between Earth and Mars when they are closest – 6 to 10 minutes, depending on whether the mission has entered the atmosphere – the landing process is a real nail-biter. As Boykins put it:

“From the time we hit the upper atmosphere of Mars ’til the vehicle is bouncing along the surface, takes six minutes. But one-way light time from Mars – i.e. if a signal was sent from Mars and sent back to Earth – that signal would take ten minutes. So when we hit the upper atmosphere, the rover sent a signal back to Earth. Six minutes later, that signal was not at Earth, but the rover was bouncing along the surface of Mars. Four minutes after that, we got a signal that it hit the upper atmosphere. There’s nothing we can do as human beings to fix or save that vehicle on its way towards the surface of Mars. If it doesn’t make it, it’s just a bad day.”

Here lies another issue that Boykins’ addressed, which is the fabled “Mars Curse“, which refers to the 40% success rate space agencies have had when attempting to land on Mars. But as he demonstrated using a graphic that showed the different landing zones for NASA missions over the years, the range has narrowed considerably, owing to advances in technology – particularly in terms of communication, navigation, and guidance systems.

Highlights from both missions followed, which included how the Spirit and Opportunity rovers vastly exceeded their mission parameters (operate for 90 days and travel 600 meters). For its part, Opportunity remained in operation for almost 15 years and traveled a total of 45.16 km (28.06 mi) – setting a new record for off-world distance travelled.

While the rover’s mission was officially ended in February, Boykins indicated that they may attempt to make contact with it again in the future. Another highlight was the mysterious rock that Opportunity found in its landing area in 2005, which turned out to be the remains of an iron meteorite. This was the first meteorite of any type to ever be identified on another planet, but it was not the last.

Three Generations of Mars Rovers in the ‘Mars Yard’ at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Pathfinder Project (front) landed the first Mars rover – Sojourner – in 1997. The Mars Exploration Rover Project (left) landed Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in 2004. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

For Curiosity, the highlights included the small ball-shaped metal meteorite it came across and studied with its laser, the many lines of evidence that the Gale Crater (where it landed in 2012) once held a standing body of water, and the moment the team realized that Curiosity‘s wheels were picking up holes. Another bright spot was Boykins explanation of how the Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers were all named.

In a tradition going back to the Pathfinder mission (1997), this was done with an essay contest, where students from all over the US submitted ideas based on what space exploration means to them. Back in September, NASA announced that it was seeking partners for another such contest, where K-12 students will have the chance to name the Mars 2020 rover.

What followed was some Q&A, where the audience got to ask questions about what it is like to work at NASA and what lies ahead for Mars exploration. One thing that Boykins was clear on was that humanity should not look to Mars as a “backup location”, which puts him in the camp opposite people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawkins.

The rover wheels used by the Opportunity (left) and Sojourner (right) rovers. Credit: Carla Jack

The high point of the evening – for me, anyway – was the informal Q&A session that took place after the talk was over. Boykins not only let people handle the rover wheels he brought with him from JPL – the same kind that were used on the Sojourner and Opportunity rovers (shown below) – he also let people get some pictures with him. I was one such person, as you can see from the photo at top.

For his accomplishments, Boykins was awarded the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a civilian. Looking ahead, he will also play a major role in creating the Europa Clipper mission, which will be exploring Jupiter’s satellite for signs of possible life beneath the surface.

As part of Nat Geo Live’s “Exploring Mars”, Boykins will be presenting to audiences across North America until January of 2020. To see where events will be taking place (or to book an event) check out the tour dates here. And be sure to check out some of National Geographic’s feature videos, where Boykins’ discusses Mars exploration, the importance of planetary protection, and the 22 years he has spent working with NASA JPL.

Further Reading: NAT GEO

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