Two exploration rovers that landed on Mars in 2004 were designed to survive an approximately 90-day mission, but both outlived their projected life by at least twice what was expected, notes NASA Engineer Kobie Boykins. Boykins will discuss this and other such engineering successes and failures at an upcoming talk about Mars missions on April 27 at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theatre.
Thanks to the book and the movie’s recent success, Hidden Figures has focused a long overdue spotlight on past and present Black contributions in space exploration, says Boykins, whose talk is scheduled as part of the National Geographic Live series presented by Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Radio. “I think it’s fantastic that people are starting to see that it wasn’t just White males that made this happen,” he said in a recent MSR phone interview.
Boykins is a senior mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which he points out is “one of the 10 NASA centers [in the U.S.].” His work goes back to the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission; he led the team that designed the solar arrays that powered the “Spirit” and “Opportunity” rovers that were sent to Mars. He also won a NASA Exceptional Service Medal in 2013 for his work that includes studying the presence of water on Mars, which might indicate that the planet could have supported life.
He quickly acknowledges that his being at NASA is a dream fulfilled, first inspired by watching Star Trek. “When The Next Generation came out,” recalls Boykins, “I really resonated with the LeVar Burton character. I always took things apart and wanted to learn how to put things back together.
“A lot of people around me worked either in education [his parents] or with their hands [an uncle]. I wanted to be the person that people ask how you fix this or how you do this — how you make this work.”
The Burton character [the only Black person on the spaceship] “was the drive” for Boykins to pursue a career in the space industry, said the Omaha, Nebraska native who earned a mechanical engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. He was offered a position in the school’s cooperative education program in his junior year, which placed him at the JPL in the late 1990s, he noted.
“I was a little lucky,” admits Boykins. “I would have swept the floors if they asked me. Whatever they asked me to do, I was going to do the best possible job I can.” The lab later hired him right after graduation.
Back in 2002, Boykins, along with other young scientists for a public education tour dubbed “Marsapalooza,” helped raise awareness of the Mars Exploration Project. Among the countless questions, one was from a four- or five-year-old boy who inquisitively asked if there are aliens on Mars. “I really liked the question,” Boykins says. He responded, “We don’t really know.” His thinking was, if you don’t know, how you can say that there are not aliens there?
“He really made an impression… When we get older we stop imagining what is possible…” says Boykins of the child’s exuberance. A young woman asked him what he does when things fail. “We all fail,” he replied, “but what matters is how you pick yourself up from that failure. If you don’t, then you really fail.”
Over the years, he and his team experienced “lots” of misses before they succeeded, Boykins admitted. “That happens to me hundreds of times. During one test on the [Mars] rover, one of the solar panels broke. That [piece] costs $500. It [was] embarrassing, but I called [my superiors] and said I am going to fix it, to make sure that we get it fixed. Then we delivered it, and it worked perfectly on the surface of Mars.”
Boykins said that among his objectives when he speaks in St. Paul is to explain how working on space missions is fun and that “there is a huge team that makes this possible.” But he also hopes to encourage more Blacks to work in the space industry.
“It’s quite often that you will go many days without seeing another Black face. I would love to see the population of African Americans, both men and women, grow by 20 percent, 30 percent” in not only in his field but in all STEM fields, he quickly points out.
Diversity is important, he emphasizes. “When you come from a different background, you think about problems differently,” says Boykins. “You attack them differently. The way of looking at the world differently adds to and makes the answer that you get better.
“The design actually changes because people are asking different questions,” Boykins says. “It has nothing to do with education, but background. That’s why I think it’s so important to increase the diversity we have.”
For more information on NASA Senior Engineer Kobie Boykins’ April 27 appearance, visit the Fitzgerald Theatre website or call 651-290-1200.
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.