Visit The Red Planet With SPA's Exploring Mars

Curiosity was built to explore the possibility of life on Mars.
Curiosity was built to explore the possibility of life on Mars. Rendering courtesy of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and California Institute of Technology
Maybe Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me To The Moon" should be updated to "Fly Me To Mars," because that's been the celestial body we have the technology to successfully reach and retrieve data from. Kobie Boykins, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory mechanical engineer, will offer a verbal and visual joy ride in Exploring Mars all the way to the Red Planet — complete with pictures and props — detailing his experience of how NASA built the roving machines that landed on Earth's neighbor, how the robots surpassed the scientists' and inventors' expectations and what is next for space exploration. The presentation, a part of the National Geographic Live series presented by Society for the Performing Arts, starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Wortham Center's Cullen Theater.

"It’s about bringing explorers in front of people. You get to see it live, and that changes the telling of the story, and I think that always makes it more rich and alive. It’s not just for those really into science or science fiction. It’s for anyone who has curiosity about exploration and a little more about Mars," Boykins said.

Few events in the last decade of space exploration have captured the world’s imagination like NASA’s ongoing Mars Exploration Program. In 2004, the successful deployment of the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity launched a new era of scientific investigation of our nearest planetary neighbor. For Boykins, the rovers’ success was also a personal triumph: he helped design and build the solar arrays that enabled to rovers to keep going long after their planned 90-day life. Indeed, Opportunity is still roaming Mars today and sending back images, more than nine years later.

For this talk, Boykins touches on a few things that help energize the next wave of explorers and inventors.

"I want them to be inspired by the work happening in their community and country. There’s a path for young and young at heart to do this as well," he said. "Understand that exploration is still happening everyday. We as human beings have so much to explore. It’s that 'go explore' mentality."

For a informational and informative talk, the names of the vehicles he's shepherded are apropos: Spirit and Opportunity.

Now, Boykins is also intimately involved with our latest venture to Mars, as supervisor of the mobility and remote sensing mast teams for the Mars Science Laboratory, better known as Curiosity. Curiosity landed on Mars last August and has already made headlines with evidence that conditions on Mars, including the presence of water, once could have supported life. For work on this and other compelling projects, Boykins last year received a NASA Exceptional Service Medal, one of the highest honors given to NASA employees and contractors.

As for the future, he believes that placing robots on Mars is only the precursor to putting humans on Mars, but there is still much exploration to be done. Robots can fill the void of what humans can do in space, but it's only a matter of time before it happens.

"Manned exploration really drives what happens next. It’s an engine. It’s a forcing function. You can only personify a rover so much, but it’s not a human," he said. "From my perspective, it flows that from robotic exploration, it will prepare the way for humans to explore further and further. It’s symbiotic. There is an unbelievably good connection for robots to go prepare and for humans to follow."

But why stop there? We've already been to the moon and back, and surely there's much more to explore than just Mars. Boykins says he has an answer for that.

"We have missions that are on the books to do sample returns from asteroids and small go out to Europa. That’s the next thing we’re working on," he said. "We’re looking for other planets through other stars in the Goldilocks zones that might have water on them. There’s so many exciting things happening that might come next."

We'll keep our antennae up and radars tuned to see what happens.

Exploring Mars starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Wortham Center's Cullen Theater, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit $25 - $65.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd