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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Real-life Geordi La Forge will speak at INB

It all started with Geordi La Forge.

When Kobie Boykins was growing up, he had to engage in one of the crucial decisions facing young people interested in science and space: “Star Trek” or “Star Wars”? Boykins was a fan of both, but he was a “huge” fan of the second-generation Star Trek series, and in particular of La Forge, the chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise played by LeVar Burton.

“He was the guy who fixed things,” Boykins said.

Now Boykins is a guy who fixes things on space vehicles. A mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Boykins has had a hand in every mission to Mars that this country has undertaken. That started when he was a student involved with the Pathfinder in 1996-97, which included the small rover Sojourner, and continued through the Curiosity, launched in 2011 and landed in 2012. Curiosity, a rover the size of a car, found the first evidence that Mars had once had the conditions suitable for microbial life.

And though his journey has included a lot of serious, technical, difficult work, it has also been what Boykins considers a “love story” – his love for science, space and exploration. It’s a love story that Boykins will share with a Spokane audience Tuesday.

“From the time we’re kids, we all start to explore,” Boykins said. “Some people explore art, some people explore humanities, some people are very good writers. But they all start to explore what they love and if you love something it really comes through, and I love the exploration of space.”

Boykins’ enthusiasm is a big part of the reason that National Geographic and other organizations want to put him on stages, explaining science. A YouTube video showing him giving a presentation in Calgary includes a visual re-enactment of the way the Mars vehicles land and the rovers unfold – what he calls “reverse origami.”

At one moment, his voice goes quiet.

“It’s so beautiful,” he says.

Boykins worked on the design and construction of the array of solar panels that power the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The rovers launched in 2003 and landed in 2004. Designed to operate for 90 days, both far exceeded that time frame. Engineers lost contact with Spirit after 2010, but Opportunity continues to rove and send data home. For the most recent rover project, Curiosity, Boykins oversaw the team responsible for the 31 robotic “actuators” on the rover – the components that operate the doors, the arms and “everything that moves,” he said.

The Mars projects are gathering all kinds of scientific information, primarily related to the geography and atmosphere of the planet. But chiefly, Boykins said, the research is aimed at trying to understand why Mars is the way it is – and whether that tells us something about how things might happen in the future on Earth.

“The most fundamental thing … is that we now know Mars once had water on the surface and lots of water,” he said. “At one point in time, in the past as the planets have evolved, Mars was much more like Earth. We don’t know if it sustained life, but that’s what Curiosity is looking for.

“We do know the basic building blocks for life were there. So then the question becomes, why is Mars now arid – big desert – and what happened to the water, and by extension, could what happened on Mars happen on Earth?”

Boykins and his colleagues perform the countless tasks of engineering that create the possibility that such questions might get answered. It takes a lot of time and a lot of testing, and the potential for problems is great. The Curiosity rover has 86 “single-point failure” possibilities – steps in the mechanical process where a breakdown dooms the entire mission.

An event like this week’s explosion of the Antares rocket, which was headed for the International Space Station, is a reminder of the incredible difficulty of space exploration.

“Launches are never routine,” Boykins said. “As much as people think they’re routine and they get used to them being very successful … every single time, there’s something that can go wrong.”

He said he has friends whose hardware was on the Antares when it blew up.

“It’s a tough thing to see and you just know how much pain and time went into all the hardware on that launch vehicle,” he said. “And you feel bad for those scientists who were waiting for that data to come back from their instrument.”

Boykins said his presentation in Spokane will focus on the process of engineering the Mars rovers – all of what went into getting them up there and working. But it will also focus on the wonder and the awe of it, on the spirit of being a human being simply looking up into the vast night sky.

“It’s hard to look up there and not go, ‘Wow. That’s impressive,’ ” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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