This panoramic from Opportunity looks back toward part of the west rim of Endeavour Crater that the rover drove along during the summer of 2014. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU.

The Past and Future of Mars: Interview with Kobie Boykins, NASA Engineer

Kobie Boykins helped design the Mars Opportunity, a rover that was supposed to work for 90 days. It’s mission ended 15 years last week.

Next Generation Science Standards:

  • MS-ETS1-1. Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.
  • MS-ESS1-3. Analyze and interpret data to determine scale properties of objects in the solar system

Mars Engineering Article Guide

Lab_Rubber Band Rocketry

Last week, 15 years after it’s arrival on Mars, NASA’s Opportunity mission came to a final and bittersweet end. Opportunity, and it’s sister rover Spirit, made amazing discoveries, including evidence that the surface of Mars once flowed with liquid water. Last June a massive, planet-wide dust storm blotted out the Sun and deprived the solar-powered Opportunity of its sole source of energy, causing NASA to lose connection with the rover. With the coming Martian winter bringing -40° degrees F temperatures, the rover is likely gone for good.

Opportunity’s mission was originally scheduled to last 90 days, yet the rover far outlived expectations, traveling 28 miles and sending back some of the best images of the Red Planet ever captured. A big reason for Opportunity’s success can be attributed to NASA engineer Kobie Boykins, who has worked on every Martian rover; Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity, and Curiosity.

While finishing a degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Boykins interned at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on the Pathfinder, the first rover sent to Mars. Since then, Boykins has helped design the spacecraft that have given us the most in-depth understanding of Mars. I sat down with Boykins to discuss what we have learned about Mars thus far, what we still need to know, and the future of exploring our Solar System.

Chris Anderson: You’ve been studying Mars for over 20 years now.

Kobie Boykins: Yeah, that’s just crazy! (laughs) Mars is such an amazing place and it’s always throwing you curveballs. The more you study it, the more you’re amazed by what’s happening there.

CA: So what was it about the Red Planet that first got you hooked?

KB: Seeing it in the night sky. As a kid, my sister and I would climb up on the roof of our house and sit there and stare at the stars.

I didn’t go to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to work on the Mars projects, I wanted to build cool space vehicles. Before 1997, Saturn and the Outer Planets were huge. There are so many other missions, but the culture and the money in the United States began flowing towards Mars and I think a big part of that was to find water.

Then I got to learn about Mars and saw it was really cool and we began pushing the technology boundaries. We started by designing a vehicle that moved on another planet. Then we built a vehicle that could generate its own power and operate for 90 days, a mission that ended up lasting 15 years. So you take the little pieces you learn from one mission and you add it to the next mission to not only do science but to prepare for human travel.

CA: In your time working in the Mars group, what have we learned thus far about the Red Planet.

KB: I think the big thing is we’ve learned is that Mars was once very wet. There was liquid water on the surface and it pooled in lakes and oceans as we have on Earth. We know that Mars was probably warmer than it is today with liquid water on the surface.

We now understand that if life started, it would have been supported because all the basic building blocks are there. But there’s so much left to be learned.

CA: Do you have a hypothesis or an idea for why Mars changed?

KB: One possibility is a catastrophic event like an asteroid impact burned or changed the density of the atmosphere and caused moisture to bleed out into space. Another is that planetary evolution may have happened to Mars faster than what might happen on Earth. We know now there is no defined magnetic field around Mars, very different than the Earth’s Van Allen belts.  If Mars’ iron core stopped spinning, the solar wind and the Sun’s radiation would reach the surface and the water could have been blown out into space. With NASA’s InSight mission that just landed a few weeks ago, we are trying to figure out what is happening below the surface of Mars.

CA: Of the different Martain rovers you’ve worked on, what’s been the biggest engineering challenge and how did you and your team solve it?

KB: Each one had different challenges. I was still a student for Pathfinder and just figuring out to put a vehicle on the Carl Sagan station was probably the biggest thing. I mean the rover was an afterthought. It was like “oh yeah we’re going to do this technology thing with this rover”.

CA: You make it sound like a remote control car.

KB: It really was! At that time, no one really thought of it as the primary mission. The Carl Sagan station was the primary mission and there was this little rover thing. Then it became THE thing.

One of the biggest challenges on Spirit and Opportunity was trying to power the vehicles. The rover needed to live for 90 days, so you do some math and come up with how much solar array area you need, knowing that every solar cell you add gives you more power. I remember Steve Squires, who was the principal investigator, in my office saying “can’t we get one more solar cell on there?” Just coming up with what the design needed to look like was really hard and then we had to find a way to fold it inside the lander. It looked like origami! I make fun of myself now because there wasn’t a time where my first design was good enough. It wasn’t that the other engineers were being mean to me, it just wasn’t good enough. So we reworked the design until we had something that worked. Those late nights are tough, especially when something breaks.

The three generations of Martian rovers developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Front and center is Pathfinder, which landed on Mars in 1997. On the left is a working test rover to Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004. On the right is Curiosity, which landed in 2012. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

CA: (laughs) A lot of sweaty palms?

KB: The day before we packed up the second Mars Explorer vehicle to drive it to Florida, I was working with technicians cleaning things at like 11 o’clock at night. As we are folding up the solar arrays to finish for the evening, a pair of wire cutters fell out of my hand and went right through a solar cell, shattering it. That was a really bad midnight call to the people in Florida to tell them I broke the rover. Luckily, it was my project so they just said: “well you’ve got to fix it”.

CA: So did it delay the launch?

KB: Nope! We were able to get a hold of the people who made the solar cells, met as a team to figure out what we needed to do, taped up the glass, packed up the vehicle and shipped it to Florida. Everyone flew out to Florida and when the vehicle showed up, we rolled it into the clean room and fixed it. It really was amazing how we were able to able to work it into the schedule.

CA: In looking forward to the next mission, Mars 2020 rover, what questions do you still want to answer about Mars and how do you want to answer them?

KB: The next thing is how do we get to the surface, grab samples that are scientifically viable, and then bring those back for further inspection? Not that we’ve gotten to the limits how what a robot can do on the surface, but if you want to have human beings on Mars, we are going to develop a way to get them back to Earth. I think telling that story and then actually doing it will show people that it is possible. We didn’t go to the Moon without experience, there were a lot of programs leading up to Apollo. It might not be a scientific reason, but it’s an engineering reason.

Scientifically, there’s not a lot of new things unless we found life or if we found water flowing on the surface. So we are going to have to start exploring in a different way. Which is why one of the technologies we are going to use on this vehicle is we are going to fly a helicopter.

A “selfie” of Mars Insight, a probe that will give researchers an understanding of what happens below the surface of Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA)

CA: That’s the sort of thing that inspires kids to go into science.

KB: Yeah! It is the coolest thing ever! We are actually going to fly a helicopter on Mars, which will open up new places for us to explore that would otherwise be dangerous. And there’s part of our job that’s about inspiring the next generation but it also inspires us (the engineers) too. It re-sparks the engine of our own imagination.

CA: You need that next generation of kids looking at what is happening in space exploration and saying “that’s awesome!” I’m sure some of the folks working at NASA were originally inspired by the Apollo program and they won’t be around forever.

KB: That’s exactly right. I think scientifically, telling the story of what happened to the water would awesome. But for me, it’s the engineering that opens the door to new engineering. We have another technology on Mars 2020 called MOXIE which is the Mars oxidation experiment. We are going to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into oxygen. Now it’s a small experiment, but to show that we could produce our own breathable oxygen on Mars is a really important step towards human exploration.

CA: How do you see the next 20 years of Solar System exploration? Do you think we will put a person on Mars soon or do you think we will send a probe to Europa?

KB: I’ve started to work on two Europa missions, one being an orbiter called Europa Clipper and the other is a lander. We are still waiting on a mission confirmation on both projects. There are also proposals out to both Enceladus and Titan, two icy moons orbiting Saturn. There’s always this huge community that wants to go back to Venus and I think that would be really cool. There would be a lot of technology that would need to be developed so that the probe could last longer than a few minutes or hours in 464° C. That hot! How are we going to do that?

If you look 20 years forward, I think we will get to where the exploration of the Solar System will be more and more international. It’s already started to move in that direction. The US is teaming with the Europea Space Agency, the Indian Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency, we are sharing a lot more than we ever have. You are starting to see people come together to work towards a common goal.

Will we have a human being on Mars in my lifetime? I believe so. But what really matters is public opinion. Can we get enough people to believe that we should spend government money to make this a priority versus a statement in a speech? We need strong direction from not just the science community but from everyone. Not just so we can say we have a human being on the surface of Mars but because the technological advances open up the minds of young people to the possibilities of what is out there.

I want to see someone stand on the surface of Mars and tell me what that sunset look like. It’s got to be the most amazing thing and I cannot wait until someone tells me that

The Martian Sunset, taken by the Insight probe. (Photo Credit: NASA)

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