Kobie Boykins has no doubt that people will go to Mars during his lifetime.
The mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory knows of what he speaks. Over the past 14 years, the winner of a NASA Exceptional Service Medal has helped build the Mars rover exploration vehicles that have made contact with the red planet.
“Seeing your hardware on another planet,” said Boykins, “it’s awe-inspiring and humbling and amazing. It’s related to the birth of your child. You’re so overcome with all these emotions, and you understand there’s something new that’s never been done before. For however many years it’s been now, we’ve gotten pictures back from the surface of Mars, and they each have a little piece of my heart in them.”
Boykins will visit Ent Center for the Arts on Friday to present his National Geographic Live! lecture, “Exploring Mars.” The 90-minute talk, with videos and a question-and-answer session, will tell the story of Mars through the eyes of the rovers.
Mars matters to this engineer, whose passion for the planet bubbles over in conversation. Experiments and studies help us learn about planetary evolution. Scientists have discovered that though Mars was once a wet place, the water has been gone for maybe hundreds of thousands of years. They still don’t know why.
The disappearance of water on Mars begs the question: Could whatever happened there also happen here?
“Not tomorrow,” Boykins said. “We’re talking on a scale of hundreds of thousands of years or millions of years, although a cataclysmic event could occur. We’re looking at the kinds of markers that would tell us. Could it happen? Yes. But it’s possible we become Venus as well, a greenhouse planet gone crazy.”
Scientists and engineers will continue their work, though the science is already in reach to skyrocket humans to Earth’s neighbor. One challenge for human bodies versus robots is all about the stopping. Robots can take a 12- to 15-G (gravitational force) load. Human beings black out at about 3 to 4 Gs and don’t tolerate deceleration well.
The other, perhaps bigger, challenge stems from our humanness. Our big brains will make the journey possible, yet our fallible emotions and innate humanness might prove to be the stumbling block. Spending extended time with the same person or people in outer space, with no way to take a break from them, is a concern.
“It takes two years to get there,” said Boykins. “It’s a social experiment. There are psychological impacts of being in deep space with the person next to you. It’s a six-year journey.”
Jennifer Mulson, The Gazette, 636-0270