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He Builds Space Robots for a Living

As a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Kobie Boykins has the awesome privilege of building stuff, only to blast it millions of miles away into space at thousands of miles an hour. He goes into work every day with the enviable job of revealing the remarkable mysteries of our universe, and as part of that mission, he’s had a hand in building all of the rovers that have landed on Mars: Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity.

“I love all the rovers because they’ve all done great things on the surface of Mars. Designed to last for 90 days, Spirit lasted almost six years, and Opportunity’s still communicating with us almost 12 years later. It’s like your children. You expected them to go off and get a college degree, but not only did they get a college degree, they got a Ph.D., and then they got the Nobel Prize.”

Scientists test the Mars rover, Curiosity, before sending it to space.
Scientists test the Mars Rover Curiosity, before sending it to space. (Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Not unlike having children, Boykins and the rest of the rover team must invest in the spacecraft for years, only to send them off and hope they do OK. “Mars Curiosity, as part of the Mars Science Laboratory, took about eight years to develop. Then once we launched it, it took about eight and a half months to reach Mars,” Boykins recalls. “Once launch happens, as a mechanical engineer you’re not going to touch the rover anymore. Now what’s going to happen is the vehicle is going to do the thing that you designed it to do, which is explore the surface of Mars and give us information that will tell a story like, there was once water on Mars. There is an inhabitable place. There are places on Mars that, if life started, life would be able to be sustained because all of the biological material, all the fundamental building blocks are there.’

That is in fact the story that Curiosity is beginning to tell. The rover, for which Boykins built the actuators, has found signs of water on Mars. “Wherever we find water, we find life,” says Boykins, believing there’s a good chance we’ll find life on Mars. “We’re probably not going to find high-order life, i.e., you or me. There’s probably not going to be aliens running around. What we’ll most likely find is blue-green algae. Pond scum. This is the stuff that appears in your aquarium or your fish tank. Maybe a microorganism. Maybe.”

The Mars rover, Curiosity, takes a selfie on the red planet. (Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
The Mars Rover Curiosity takes a selfie on the red planet. (Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

 

So why get excited about pond scum? You don’t have to ask Boykins twice: “We should be excited about finding algae because we would be able to say that life is not unique to Earth. If we found something that started as blue-green algae, that’s the beginning of what happened here on Earth,” Boykins explains. “But for me, a lot of the exploration of Mars is not about having a lifeboat to go and live there, but understanding the evolution of the planet and saying, ‘Can we figure out what happened on the surface of Mars to cause life to not currently be there?’ And how can we apply that knowledge to what’s going on here on Earth so that we understand how to protect our own planet?”

Boykins is currently developing instruments that will be on board the next Mars rover, launching in the year 2020.

Kobie Boykins in the clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, where spacecraft is built. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Kobie Boykins in the clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, where spacecraft are built. (Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Check out other jobs that go beyond the cubicle in the rest of our digital series Best Job Everand learn about science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society at natgeo.org/grants.

Video Credits:
PRODUCER/EDITOR: Nora Rappaport
SERIES PRODUCER: Chris Mattle
ASSOCIATE PRODUCERS: Jared Gair and Elaina Kimes