Exploring Mars: Nat Geo Live! at the Weidner

Aimee Suzanne Kruse-Ross

aimee suzanne kruse-ross | nat geo live | april 2019

NASA engineer Kobie Boykins. All photos courtesy NASA/JPL Caltech.In March, NASA released a panoramic image of the surface of Mars taken by the rover Opportunity. The image, comprised of 354 individual images taken over roughly a month's time in 2018, documents the final resting place of the rover and ends nearly 15 years of exploration upon the surface of the red planet located some 49 million miles away from Earth.

Much of what we know about Mars is owed to the rovers Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. NASA engineer Kobie Boykins has worked on all three and brings his enthusiasm for unraveling the mysteries of space to the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts on April 12.

Taking a few moments away from his day in California, Boykins was kind enough to discuss his Nat Geo Live! presentation, the red planet and the extinction of mankind with us at Frankly Green Bay.

Before we get into some of the details, can you tell me about your Nat Geo Live presentation and what it entails? As we are talking about rocket science or something near to it, can younger audiences enjoy the presentation?

The Nat Geo Live show is about bringing explorers to the public. In my particular show, I talk about the rovers of the red planet. We'll discuss the Mars science laboratory, and we'll talk about some of the plans for our future missions. We'll also talk about the science of the return of those missions and how we made those exploratory vehicles successful. So it's really the engineering story about how we got those vehicles to the surface of Mars and made them successful. It's definitely a show for all audiences and I try not to use any big words! (laughs)

Ultimately, what's the greatest thing you could hope to see accomplished with one the Mars rovers? Is it the definitive discovery of water, finding signs of life or a chance at terraforming or something else, perhaps?

We have found water on the surface of Mars, yes, so we know without a shadow of a doubt that there's water. We'll talk about the Mars science laboratory and what our science goals are with it. We'll go back to 2003 to the Explorer rover missions, which we just finished with the Opportunity mission in February. For example, the Opportunity's rovering job was to go to the surface of Mars and look at the rocks and see if there was a past story with the water on the surface. With the 2011 Curiosity rover, her job was to be a roving biologist, to look at the surface to see if there were markers or basic building blocks for life. We do know, however, that when Mars was warmer and had liquid water on the surface it had the potential to contain life.

Today, you're a NASA engineer. Who does an aspiring NASA engineer look up to as a child and who were your primary influences or your heroes?

I grew up more in the post-Apollo, shuttle-era, and I remember watching Christa McAuliffe go up in the Challenger. I think part of that was so amazing as a child, and it was certainly a transformative and tragic event. In my mind, I wondered how we could prevent something like this, what job could I have that helps to prevent disasters like that? Another influence would be actor LeVar Burton who became the engineer on the Starship Enterprise. As the character Geordi La Forge, it was his job to fix problems, and being a Trekkie fan, that started my love of engineering. Also my mother, an incredibly strong woman gave my sister and I an incredible amount of guidance. I'd also include my fifth grade teacher who told me that if I really wanted to be an engineer and build spaceships and if I remained focused, I could do it if that's what I wanted. There's quite a few, really, people that I idolized. And since an early age, I was always intrigued by building spacecraft. And now here I am and I get to do this work!

As Curiosity wasn't the first rover project that you've worked on, were you able to improve upon Curiosity's design based upon your work on Spirit and Opportunity?

Absolutely! So one of the things that's great about having a program of exploration is that we get to build technology and now, we get to improve on it. We go back to look at 1977 and how we were able to land Viking on the surface. And when you look at successive landings since then, like the rover Sojourner (1997), we continue to improve and in this show, you see the progression of technology. It's still difficult to land on Mars, but right now 40 percent of our missions are successful. And we continue to improve.

Few people are likely as knowledgeable about the Red Planet than you are, what's the next step in the exploration of Mars?

The plan today that we are working on is the next Mars mission for 2020 and it's what I'd like to call the 'Mars Sample Return' series. The questions we are working on include, 'How do we go to the surface of Mars, acquire samples and get them back to earth? How do we obtain them, store them and bring them back to earth and how do we bring them back to earth safely?' So we're working on building that technology in order to accomplish these things.

I saw an interesting video on the possibility or concern that we could contaminate places in space like Mars via exploration. Can you speak to this a little bit?

This is one of the things that is protected by International Law and Planetary Protection. Anyone who does planetary exploration is bound to this treaty. We try, as a scientific community, to understand the 'bio-burden' of our study, and how many particles of life, spores, bacteria, etc. exist on the spacecraft itself. We do our best to maintain and keep the spacecraft extremely clean and keep our 'bugs' from contaminating the planet. Our goal is, if we land on another surface, that the planet would not be able to detect our 'bugs.' And it's very, very important for us to protect those environments as a community. This is because when we landed on the moon, we thought we'd found life on the moon because one of our cameras had bacteria growing on it. Turns out, it was our own bacteria. (laughs)

With that said, and I understand that this is a vast question, will there ever be a time when humans are extinct?

That's a fantastically great question. In the terms of geological time, most definitely, there will be a time at which human beings will be extinct. Is there an extinction event that will take us out? Yes, with 100 percent certainty. It's one of the things that all of us think about. The dinosaurs aren't here, so there's that history and that possibility can certainly happen again.

Will we do harm to our planet in a way that we can never recover? That's a much more difficult question to answer. From a geological stance, we've been here for such a short period of time. It might be that we eradicate ourselves, but our planet may more or less hit the 'reboot' button and keep going. At some point in time, perhaps billions of years from now, our star will go supernova and it will take out the Earth. And that's the extinction level event that we can do nothing about. Will we be spacefaring by that point? Will we have expanded out into the expanse? The answer is probably yes because we are curious as beings and we are explorers fundamentally.

Is there anything you'd like to add that we haven't already discussed?

For me, it's a really fun time and an opportunity for the audience to ask questions and learn more about our explorations. I hope that when the audience leaves, they realize that the money that we spend on these missions is well worth the effort, and it's something that we, as Americans, should be very proud of.

National Geographic Live! takes place at the Weidner Center on April 12 at 7:30 p.m. More information at weidnercenter.com.

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