Kobie Boykins grew up watching Star Trek and dreaming of piloting rocket ships. Now he helps build spacecraft for a living. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineer has contributed solar arrays, actuators, and other components for Mars rovers, two of which, the Opportunity and Curiosity, continue to roam the red planet long after their expected lifespan, thanks to his work. Boykins spoke to The Independent about engineering, new frontiers, and the importance of failure.

How did you get started working on space exploration? When I was a student, I came to JPL, and my first job was working on the Pathfinder, the first Mars lander that we had done since Viking 1 and 2 …. Now I am deputy second manager at JPL. I run an organization of approximately 100 people that is working on instruments for small spacecraft, trying to infuse new technology into new space technology.

Tell me about the solar arrays you build for Mars rovers. Think of it as the solar cells that are in your calculator. We are taking the sun’s energy, converting it into electricity, the electricity charges a battery, the battery runs a rover. That’s how the solar arrays work.

So what’s the point of going to Mars? The reason we study Mars is to understand how planets will evolve and if that same evolution [could] occur here on Earth. Could we have a future that looks like Mars? … At the end of the day, that’s why it’s important to study Mars.

Any last words? I think it’s important for everyone to note that failure is an opportunity for us to learn …. Some of our greatest engineering achievements come from our failures, not from our successes. It’s not about how great you are or how bad you are; it’s how you learn from your mistakes, and I challenge everybody to be great from learning from their mistakes.


Kobie Boykins will be speaking about Mars exploration at UCSB on Sunday, November 23, at 3 p.m. in Campbell Hall. For more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.


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