Hoopla

Exploring Mars: NASA engineer bringing rover tales down to earth in Cedar Rapids

What if a single hair on your head, the oils on your fingertips, or one of the thousands of droplets of saliva you expel each time you cough had the potential to jeopardize a multibillion-dollar interplanetary mission? That’s why engineer Kobie Boykins suits up in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Boykins will speak about Mars exploration in a National Geographic Live presentation Sept. 27 at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. (Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech)
What if a single hair on your head, the oils on your fingertips, or one of the thousands of droplets of saliva you expel each time you cough had the potential to jeopardize a multibillion-dollar interplanetary mission? That’s why engineer Kobie Boykins suits up in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Boykins will speak about Mars exploration in a National Geographic Live presentation Sept. 27 at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. (Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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Kobie Boykins’ feet are planted firmly on Earth, but his head has been in the stars since childhood.

And even though space travel isn’t on his personal to-do list — he’s “perfectly happy” making the vehicles that get there better — if Earth needed an engineer on the spaceship to fix one of his Martian machines, he’d say OK.

At age 44, he firmly believes humans will land on Mars in his lifetime. “I always say it’s 25 years away.”

But he’s not OK with the notion of colonizing the Red Planet.

“We live on this planet,” he said. “We should figure out a way to keep this planet clean. Mars should not be a lifeboat for us,” Boykins, 44, said by phone from Illinois. “Mars is really not that great a place to live. It would be very, very difficult to make it a very nice place to live, and we’re talking eons away.

“Exploring Mars? It’s about that human spirit — that idea to explore. I think that’s important. But to live there? No.”

An Omaha native who now lives and works in Pasadena, Calif., he crisscrosses the country to discuss Mars exploration in National Geographic Live presentations. He’ll be at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Sept. 27 to wrap up a three-speaker series presented by The Gazette, which earlier focused on extreme cave diving and wildlife photography.

“I like to talk about the rovers of Mars from an engineering perspective,” Boykins said, “so what you’ll hear is what went behind the design and the development of the rovers. How did we get from thinking about exploring Mars to building vehicles that were on the surface taking imagery and sending that back? Some of it’s told through fun stories, some of it’s told through videos, and a lot of it is a story from a firsthand account of somebody who’s been working on those vehicles that are on the surface.

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“I like to say it is the engineering story behind the science story that most people have heard.”

A NASA engineer, he helped design the Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity to explore the planet’s surface. Those names describe Boykins, as well, whose curiosity for space exploration was born from watching “Star Trek” and the stars in his youth.

“I used to look at the night sky as a kid,” he said. “My sister and I used to crawl up on the roof and just sit there and stare at the stars. It started this process of having curiosity — this willingness to dream about what is possible.”

Born after Apollo astronauts had walked on the moon, he grew up watching space shuttle launches, with the Challenger explosion leaving an indelible mark on his soul.

“I remember vividly sitting in school, watching the first teacher go up in space, and it didn’t happen. It’s terrible that it was such a tragedy,” he said, “but from that, there was even some conviction of, ‘I wonder what I could do to make that better.’ It’s not like I was that old, but it was still something that stayed with me, that we shouldn’t stop exploring — we should figure out how to make it safer.”

That sparked his desire to “do a lot of studying.”

“I just really liked space vehicles. I liked the idea of things that went into space,” he said. “I loved reading about things that we had done — Viking landing on the surface of Mars, Voyager I and Voyager II. And then you get ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture.’ There’s all these connections to the space stuff we’ve done as human beings and this sort of fantasy world that Gene Roddenberry put together in ‘Star Trek.’ I think I just related very well.”

That explains his love of outer space, he said. His interest in Mars came “by happenstance” in his college years.

He combined two of his great loves by attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. “They had a Division I hockey team and one of the top engineering programs in the country, and a great relationship with NASA,” he said. “In fifth grade, I wanted to be (“Star Trek” engineers) Geordi or Scotty,” he said, and at RPI, he found smaller, hands-on, theoretical classes and was able to walk onto the hockey team.

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In a cooperative educational program, he was able to go from his college out east to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. There he worked on the Mars Pathfinder, launched in 1996 to deliver the first Mars rover, Sojourner.

“It was just so fun, and I fell in love with the idea of exploring and having robotic explorers on the surface of another planet.”

The enthusiasm that shines through his stories has made him an award-winning speaker/educator for all age levels, and especially for school kids.

“I’m very lucky I have this gift of gab,” he said. “For some reason, my brain is able to take to very diverse high-level science and engineering things and then break that down into small constituents. For some strange reason, it relates very well to audiences. I’m not the typical engineer.”

One of his goals is to “inspire” star treks in the next generation. “To show them something they’ve never seen before, like watching the sun rise or set from another planet,” he said.

Since his work with Mars rovers is done for now, except for any troubleshooting that might arise, his focus has turned to exploring Jupiter’s ice moon Europa. And to inspire a space science curiosity in his sons, ages 5 and 2.

“They’ve been indoctrinated,” he said, noting they have some solar system items and glow-in-the-dark stars in their room, along with “lots of toys” that talk about different planets.

“They’ve heard me talk, so my oldest likes to tell everybody at school, ‘My daddy works on rovers on Mars.’ That’s just so cute.”

Get out!

WHAT: National Geographic Live: Kobie Boykins, “Exploring Mars”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27

WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

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TICKETS: $30 to $40, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com

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