From imagining going boldly where no one has gone before, to sending rovers there in real life, Kobie Boykins turned a childhood dream into a prolific career “Exploring Mars.”
A dynamic young engineer at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Boykins is on the front line of Mars exploration. He designed the solar arrays that power the Mars exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Most recently, Boykins was responsible for the design of actuators on Curiosity. And, Boykins’ other projects have included work on the Mars Pathfinder mission and the Ocean Surface Topography Mission, making measurements by satellite of the Earth’s oceans.
Now, Boykins is sharing his stories about rovers on the red planet and the future of exploration in his National Geographic Live talk “Exploring Mars,” this week in New York. For those who can’t make it to the Big Apple, Boykins answered some questions about his inspirations, life and work as an engineer.
What inspired you to dedicate your career to Space exploration?
I always had a knack for doing things like engineering. I took things apart. My mother claims that there was never a remote control that had a back in the house … Then, I became a Star Trek fan — Star Trek, Star Wars, both of them. But, I started to identify with Lieutenant Commander Geordi Laforge from Star Trek, LeVar Burton … Who I had a [connection] with as a kid as the host of Reading Rainbow. He had a great job. For me, it was like, “Here’s the guy that people ask to fix things.” And that’s what I want to do. I want to be the guy that fixes things. I could be an engineer, and wouldn’t it be cool if I could build space crafts to explore the solar system?
What are some of your favorite images and discoveries from the Mars rovers that you have contributed to as an engineer?
My favorite image is a picture of the sun setting on Mars. Spirit took a picture of the sun setting on Mars and Opportunity took a video of it, either way, that image is just so amazing to me. In that image, I can see myself on the surface of Mars and watching the sunset. Just to see that on a different planetary body, to see that from Mars, is just an amazing thing.
You once said, “I honestly feel that we will have a person standing on the surface of Mars at some point in time, because there is something that is innate in human beings…that need to explore.” Could you describe this “innate” need for discovery?
Well, start off with the early humans. We started as hunters and gatherers in the forest, nomadic. They don’t stand in one place. It’s not until civilized culture where we have human beings staying in one place for any period of time. I think it’s innate in our nature to move around, and to explore, and to question, and to ask questions and to be curious. I think that part of us — you can watch it in children. They’re always asking “what’s this,” “what’s that.” They push the boundaries. It’s just part of our nature to explore to see what the boundaries of our world or universe are. And, I don’t mean world or universe as in what is out there, but in terms of the little sphere that we put around ourselves. Can I take this step? Can I take another step? Oh, I can swim. Oh, I can dive. You just keep exploring your own local universe until you’ve filled it. And, I think that’s what we do as a species; we continue to try to expand our universe.
It’s that particular part of that curiosity, that ability to dream, that ability to think greater than one’s self that I think is innate. And, I think that’s why we’ll have a human being on the surface of Mars.
When do you think there could be a manned mission to Mars?
I think in the 20 to 25 year horizon. I’ve been saying that for ten years probably, but it keeps moving out.
I think technologically we can do it. Now, it’s just trying to solve the human factors that we have. We can actually build a vehicle that can take a human from Earth to Mars, there’s still some stuff that needs to be worked out. But, we can do that. Now, it’s how do we do that safely? How can they land safely and how de we get them back? How do you keep a human being safe through space? How would you like to spend two years with your best friend in a room that’s approximately ten-foot diameter? It’s not to say that it’s bad. But there are psychological things that happen to human beings when they’re isolated.
Now, we have a whole new generation that doesn’t really know that we walked on the moon — they weren’t alive for Apollo. There’s a whole generation to inspire into this type of world, aerospace exploration, to have someone leave this planet and come back. Rovers can be personified, and people can get on board, but having a human being is different. There’s a different connection.
What most excites you about your National Geographic Live “Exploring Mars” talk?
A lot of people know about the rovers. But, they don’t really know about what happened in the background. The thing that really excites me about it, is that it gives a chance to celebrate the men and women who are not on TV. But, the people who actually created it and made those vehicles work.
It gives the chance to sort of brag about how amazing the job that I have is. And, hopefully, just one person or two people decide to go into doing engineering, you know STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Because, if we can inspire just one person, that’s an amazing feat. And, maybe that’s the person that’s going to stand on the surface of Mars or they build a vehicle that takes us there safely.
[This interview has been condensed and edited.]
Come see Boykins in New York at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on May 6 for more stories about his life and career. For tickets and information, visit the National Geographic Live event page.