By Kobie Boykins ’96
Today, as NASA attempts to land another vehicle on the surface of Mars, I am reminded of the amazing journey that I have been able to be part of as a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. As a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, I — along with a strong team — have been able to support all the rover missions to the Mars surface. I started with Sojourner, was a really big part of Spirit and Opportunity, lived in a different area code for Curiosity, and am now a mechanical manager for many instruments and the helicopter development for Perseverance.
These rover missions started with an idea that we could do mobile exploration (Sojourner) and evolved to a primary mission to prove that water existed on the surface of Mars in the past and mission arc named “Follow the Water”(Spirit and Opportunity). Then, we moved on to a much bigger rover to look for “the right environmental conditions to support small life forms” (Curiosity).
Now, with Perseverance, we start a new chapter of Mars exploration with a mission with the goal of seeking signs of ancient life and collecting samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) for possible return to Earth. It is really this last part that gets my engine going. We, as a community, have been talking about sample return from Mars for a least two decades, and that is just what I was allowed to work on. I am sure that this discussion has been raging on for a long time, maybe back to Viking. Either way, the possibility of a sample return from Mars would open up all kinds of doors for new experiments and requires new and more advanced mechanical, electrical, software, and automation systems to accomplish this task. Can you imagine trying to catch an orbiting sample (pieces of Mars stored in a volume about the size of a rugby ball) at a moment called the “OS” with a small spacecraft orbiting Mars? Now, add in that we must keep it clean and mostly sterile for its return trip to Earth, and the task gets daunting very quickly.
Back to Perseverance — this vehicle has some really fun experiments as well. Let’s start with MOXIE. I got to manage the mechanical part of this oxygen-making experiment on the surface of Mars. There is also the Mars Helicopter, called Ingenuity, that will fly its way into history books as being the first powered flight from the surface of Mars.
What does all of this mean for us? As humans, I think that research on Mars is both a goal, which drives us to imagine, and a history lesson. If Mars once had liquid water on the surface and it seems like lots of it, where did it go and could that happen here? Wouldn’t you like to know that answer and understand if planetary evolution can slowly remove the water from a once water-rich planet? What about losing the radiation protection, and getting colder? All of these scenarios could happen here and that’s a good enough reason to want to understand Mars. From the technical side, what an amazing place to get a chance to “flex” our creative muscles and explore a new and very difficult landscape. I am a total Star Trek fan; this is our generation’s chance “To Boldly Go” and from our past Jet Propulsion Laboratory directory, “Dare Mighty Things!”
Learn more about the long history of Rensselaer involvement in space exploration and research. And I’m sure there are many others.
View the virtual watch party of the Perseverance rover landing:
Image Above: The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, better known as MOXIE.