Suggested Searches

Rise of the Twins: Spirit and Opportunity - S4E3

Season 4Episode 3Feb 16, 2022

After two failed missions to Mars, NASA tried to double its odds for success by sending twin rovers to the Red Planet. Part one of the story of Spirit and Opportunity takes us from their birth to their launch from Earth.

On a Mission artwork

On a Mission artwork



Narrator: In the early 2000s, NASA was planning to send two rovers to Mars, and many teams were busy building all the different rover parts. Honeybee Robotics, based in New York City, was making a Rock Abrasion Tool, called the RAT. Wielded by a rover, the RAT would chew away at the surface of rocks so scientists could see how different a Martian rock’s pristine inside was from its weathered outside.

[0:33](sound of grinding tool on rocks)

Narrator: The Honeybee Robotics team was heading into work one morning in September when they heard a sound that sent shock waves around the world.

(sound of jet hitting the twin towers, and overlapping news coverage)

President George W. Bush:…two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country…

[1:06] Narrator: Honeybee’s building was on Elizabeth Street in lower Manhattan, less than a mile from the World Trade Center. Even though the team was on a tight schedule to finish the tool, that was momentarily forgotten as they watched events unfold from the roof of their building.

ABC 7 news reporter:This is as close as we can get to the base of the World Trade Center, you can see the firemen assembled here, the police officers, FBI agents, and you can see the two towers, a huge explosion now raining down debris on all of us… we better get out of the way!

(sound of Tower 1 collapsing)

[1:42] Narrator: The days afterward hung heavy with more than just acrid air and toxic dust from the collapse of the twin towers. The Honeybee team decided their tool should include a tribute to the tragedy.

Using aluminum recovered from the World Trade Center site, two cuffs were forged at a metal shop in Round Rock, Texas. The cuffs were designed to shield electrical cables on the RATs, and an American flag decal was affixed to the front of each one.

[2:11] The twin Mars rovers carried these and other tributes with them when they flew to Mars in 2003, including a memorial to the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia, which broke up on re-entering Earth’s atmosphere just a few months before the rovers launched.

CBS news reporter Dan Rather:It would appear that the Space Shuttle Columbia has been lost. NASA now says that shuttle debris has been sighted in Northcentral Texas… Mission Control lost contact with the shuttle just minutes before it was to land this morning at 9:16 Eastern time at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida…

[2:46] Narrator: While the rovers held some of America’s deepest traumas of that decade, they also carried more lighthearted items, such as metal LEGO bricks and two mini-LEGO astronaut figures. The LEGO pieces helped keep in place mini-DVDs that encoded 4 million names submitted by those who wanted to feel, in spirit, that they were traveling with the rovers to Mars.

[3:11] The rovers’ own names changed before they left Earth. When they were built, they were called “Mars Exploration Rover – A,” and “Mars Exploration Rover – B,” or “MER-A” and “MER-B.” The Planetary Society, in collaboration with NASA and the LEGO company, held a contest for students asking them to suggest new rover names.

[3:34] Out of ten thousand entries, the contest winner was nine-year-old Sofi Collis, who was born in Siberia but adopted at age two and brought to live in the United States. Sofi read her winning essay at a NASA press conference.

Sofi Collis: I used to live in the orphanage. It was dark and cold and lonely. At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky. I felt better. I dreamed I could fly there. In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the “Spirit” and the “Opportunity.”

(Intro theme music)

[4:46] Narrator:Welcome to “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’m Leslie Mullen, and in this fourth season of the podcast, we’re following in the tracks of rovers on Mars. This is episode three: Rise of the Twins: Spirit and Opportunity.


Narrator:The success of Sojourner, NASA’s first Mars rover in 1997, led to dreams of more ambitious Mars missions, including a rover that could travel greater distances.

[5:20] The Sojourner rover had been a technology demonstration – meant to prove we could operate a vehicle on Mars – but little Sojourner was limited in how far it could go because it needed to stay within radio range of the Pathfinder lander, which boosted its messages to Earth. The new rover would have enough power to talk to Earth directly, and be big enough to carry a suite of tools to study all the things it encountered as it freely traveled around Mars, trekking towards a boundless horizon.

But then, just a year after Sojourner’s triumph, tragedy struck when NASA lost two Mars missions back-to-back: the Mars Climate Orbiter didn’t end up orbiting Mars, and the Mars Polar Lander crash-landed. These losses in 1998 brought plans for a new Mars rover down to Earth.

[6:11] Here’s JPL engineer Matt Wallace.

Matt Wallace:We really couldn’t start the project until we had recovered from the two mission failures. The failures of those missions created a response which took a while to really unravel, to understand what the problems were, and why they failed, and what systemically and programmatically needed to change to make the next set of vehicles successful. By the time we had that figured out, and the program had been restructured and reassessed, we were coming up fast on the 2003 launch window.

[6:49] You generally can launch to Mars every two years because of the locations of the planets, just the orbital geometry. But not every launch window is a good launch window, because sometimes you arrive at a time of year, for instance, when there’s global dust storms on Mars, or when the pressure cycle is not advantageous. So we knew we had a good window in 2003, and so It was less than three years, really, from the beginning to the end of the project.

[7:19] Narrator: Not only did the team have to build a rover quickly, they had to make two of them. The dual failures at Mars made NASA nervous that the next Mars mission also could be lost, but twin rovers would increase the odds of success.

NASA had doubled-up on missions before. In the 1970s, for instance, NASA’s first landers on Mars – Vikings 1 and 2 – had been twins – and so were the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft that had traveled around the solar system, visiting the outer planets like Jupiter and Saturn.

[7:52] Matt Wallace:I actually spent a lot of time going back and talking to the Viking and the Voyager teams, as well as poring through these old mimeographed documents that sat in these old dusty libraries that I’m sure nobody had looked at for 30 years, trying to understand how they did it, and what we could learn from that. I really enjoyed that kind of historical digging.

And I loved working with the teams. We were working almost around the clock on two spacecraft simultaneously, and it was pretty hectic.

(sound of spacecraft assembly in High Bay)

[8:32] Matt Wallace:I was the ATLO Manager, and ATLO stands for Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations, which is kind of a mouthful, but my team was responsible for basically taking the different parts of the spacecraft once they were constructed and putting them together, assembling the spacecraft and testing it. And then getting the whole thing down to Kennedy Space Center, and getting it launched. So you know, the lander would come down, the radar would come down, the computer would come down, the parachute would come down. They’d all come down in pieces, and the ATLO team has to assemble all of that and make sure it all plays together and it works.

(sound of spacecraft assembly in High Bay, with music)

[9:16] Narrator: The mission team preferred to use equipment that was already proven to work at Mars. So for instance, the same parachute-and-airbag landing system that had successfully set the Pathfinder lander and Sojourner rover down on Mars would be adapted for Spirit and Opportunity. There had to be changes to what had been done before, though, because the new rovers were going to be more than 10 times heavier than little Sojourner, and carry more instruments.

[9:44] Sojourner had an alpha particle X-ray spectrometer to study the chemistry of rocks, and magnets to test whether Martian dust and soil grains were magnetic. Spirit and Opportunity included improvements on these, and added two additional spectrometers: one to measure infrared light, or heat, and another that looked at gamma rays. The new rovers also had a panoramic camera to gaze around the wide landscape, and another camera that acted like a magnifying glass to peer at microscopic details in the rocks.

[10:18] A jointed robotic arm, similar to a human arm in size and shape, would wield two of the spectrometers, as well as the microscopic imager and the Rock Abrasion Tool. The rovers also had foldable solar panels that could be tucked down to fit within the space capsule during its flight to Mars, and then opened up like wings after landing.

All these pieces and more were sent to the High Bay, an enormous cleanroom where spacecraft are put together at JPL. But having twins could lead to some confusion.

[10:54] Matt Wallace:We had to make sure we knew what the state was of each vehicle, and not confuse the two. You know, this connector was mated, but was it on this vehicle or was it on the other vehicle? They were side by side out in the High Bay. We had cables running out, and if all you did was look at the cable, sometimes you couldn’t tell which spacecraft the cable was for, and so we had to color code all of our cables. We eventually started to take key team members and assign them only to one spacecraft, because they just couldn’t keep the complexity of the configuration for the two vehicles in their head at the same time.

[11:35] Most people think, “Well, you got to build two instead of one, it’s gotta be harder, right? It turns out that by having two vehicles you can, I like to say, “diversify your test program.” So, you don’t have to do every test on every vehicle. And so, we could really accelerate, especially one of the vehicles, dramatically by doing a lot of the testing of the common design elements on the other vehicle. And so, the first launch, Spirit, really from the time we started assembling it to the time we launched, it was maybe nine months. And it should have been like 20 months.

[12:17] And the spacecraft are complex things, you know, like human beings, they don’t always react exactly the same way to the same test. And very often, you have to do a certain test multiple times. And by having two spacecraft, you basically improve the statistics. You get that test run on two different, supposedly identical vehicles, but if you’re on a hair-trigger timing issue, it may pass on one vehicle, it may fail on the other, for instance. There’s a lot of cases like that on spacecraft. And so, having two very similar, but not exactly the same… you know, it’s like twins, they’re very similar, but their moms can tell them apart, right?

[13:00] Narrator:JPL engineer Kobie Boykins definitely could tell the twin rovers apart.

Kobie Boykins:The people who were working on the floor, we knew the difference between the two vehicles. So interestingly enough, because of orbital dynamics, the Spirit vehicle actually had to be lighter than Opportunity. And so, as we put the vehicle together, as we got parts in, we weighed them. We’re only talking, you know, a number of grams, like 50 grams heavier or lighter. So the lighter hardware went to Spirit – what ended up being named Spirit, at the time it was MER-A – and the heavier stuff went to MER-B. The lighter one needed to be the first one that launched, because it was not as great a launch opportunity in terms of the mass that we could deliver as the second one was.

[13:43] And so, if you had extra cable, right – so when we built it, it was a little bit longer, so it was a little bit heavier – that went to one vehicle. And so, what we do is we hide the cable by making little bends. And so, on one vehicle, it might look very, very well dressed, like the hair’s prim and proper and perfect. And on the other vehicle, it was a little bit more wavy, you know, it just didn’t look exactly the same.

Or there’s little nicks or, you know, like the underside of the solar array was plated in gold, and that was to reject the heat from the surface. And then we found out it was too good, so we had to abrade it. And the abrasion marks on one vehicle were a little different than the other. And so, you have these twins and you look at them, and you go, “Oh, that’s MER-B and that’s MER-A.”

[14:22] Narrator: When Kobie first joined the mission, he worked on the solar panels that would provide most of the power to the rovers.

Kobie Boykins:I was the cognizant engineer, which means you’re the person that is responsible for the delivery, the design, all the pieces of it. And, with a solar array, at least for the mobile platform of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, that array was the first deployable solar array we were going to do on the surface of another planet. It was sort of big; it needed to have all this power.

[14:46] And right before Christmas, I was on a plane, I was going to fly home to Nebraska where I was born and raised. And I get a phone call, “Kobie, the array vendor, the people that are gonna make the photovoltaic cells, the thing that actually takes the Sun’s energy and makes power and then charges up the battery, that company was going to close their doors. Go home, enjoy Christmas and be on a plane to come back here on the 26th.” I said, “Okay!” (laughs)

I mean, it was scary. It wasn’t a very good Christmas to tell you the truth, because I was freaking out that all this hard work and everything we’d done, we’re going to slip the launch, because Mars is not, “Hey, you can always launch to Mars.” You know, Mars is almost an every-two-year type of endeavor.

[15:26] And so we came back and we worked with Spectrolab, who’s just up the street from JPL. They said, “Yeah, we can help you out.” We were able to salvage something and we got cells on there, and it just all turned out fantastic.

Narrator: Crisis averted, the completed solar arrays were sent to Matt Wallace’s ATLO team so they could be added to the rovers. But Kobie’s time with the rovers had only just begun.

Kobie Boykins:I really wanted to keep living with my hardware. And so, I got lucky; I was selected to be on the assembly, test, and launch operations team called ATLO. And it’s a huge undertaking, hundreds of people working more or less around the clock to make it happen.

[16:00] You have all this very, very expensive, many, many people hours spent into design, building of this particular hardware that you have, and your job is to be more or less the team that assembles the vehicle, make sure that it’s put together appropriately per the engineering instructions. And you go through the paces, you’re going to vibrate it like it’s going to see on launch. You’re going to put in a thermal chamber and expose it to the thermal environment it’s going to see on the surface of Mars. You’re going to do all these things; you’re going to go through and make sure that we didn’t miss anything, that we’ve designed it appropriately so that we can survive on the surface.

[16:35] And wow, what an amazing thing to see a piece of metal that’s been machined by a human being on a lathe or on a mill or on a three-axis machine, and see that part go from just looking like just a part, something you can hold in your hand, and that gets put together with a wheel, gets put together with a piece of structure, and blah, blah, blah. And the next thing you know, you see this rover, almost this living, breathing thing that has a personality, even, when it’s turned on.

And then we put it on the floor and it drives, right? You see the vehicle move. And you sort of get tears like, “Oh my goodness, it’s real! The thing works. I can’t even believe it.” From a kid that used to take things apart and always have extra pieces, to having something that went together like it was supposed to, with no extra pieces, and you’re like, “This is amazing. This is the coolest thing ever.”

[17:22] Narrator:One of Kobie’s last moments with Opportunity rover was one he’ll never forget. And coincidentally, it involved the solar cells that had spoiled his Christmas holiday.

Kobie Boykins:The second vehicle sorta had a problem where I may have broke a cell or two during a test.


Kobie Boykins:One vehicle had already gone to the Cape, which is the Kennedy Space Center. A lot of the team had moved out there to start the rest of the ATLO, getting ready, really, for launch services. We do all the final touches, remove before-flight stuff, and then literally put it on top of the rocket, get ready to fire it off.

[17:55] So they were there, and we had the second vehicle here, and it was coming out of thermal vacuum testing. We bring it into the clean room and we start to clean it up, because when it’s in thermal test, you have all of these thermal connections, what we call TC wires, these thermocouples that tell us temperatures at different places. And that helps us understand how it’s going to perform on the surface of Mars.

And we were going to pack the vehicle up to ship to the Cape the next day. And it was late; it was probably 11 o’clock at night. And I look back at the vehicle and I said, “Gosh, I really don’t like that stupid cable that’s right there. I’m just going to go cut it.”

[18:32] And so I went over to the toolbox. I grabbed a pair of wire cutters, and I walked over to the vehicle. If you’ve ever seen people working in the clean rooms, you ground yourself to the vehicle so you don’t electrically charge the vehicle and shock something and kill something – bad, bad, bad. You don’t want to do that. So I do this, and I grab the cable, and I grab the wire cutters, and I cut it, and everything’s great. I got it in my hand. And as I’m moving my right hand away, the bottom of the wire cutters hit the rest of the bundle of wire. They slip out of my hands, turn sharp side down, and go right into a cell, and they crack it.

(sound of drop and shatter)

[19:09] Kobie Boykins:And then they fall on the panel and I’m looking at it. And I am sure my first reaction was to say every profanity that I knew, but I was standing too close to the vehicle to do that. So I slowly backed away. And then I think I let out this guttural, “Oh my…” you know, you can imagine. And our quality assurance person who was in the room was like, “Kobie, what happened?” And then they look at the rover and then she understood why I was screaming and yelling and craziness was ensuing.

[19:40] And you know, I told you this was 11:00. Now it’s midnight by the time we sorted everything out, processed the appropriate paperwork. And I’m calling the project manager and the ATLO manager, Matt Wallace, and you know in Florida, this is three hours later, so it’s 3:00 a.m. And people are waking up groggy and they’re like, “Kobie, what you… what are you telling me?” “I broke the rover.” “You did what?” “I broke the rover.” And then they’re awake.

[20:04] And Matt’s like, “Okay well… uhhh… you should get some sleep.” (laughs) And then I talked to a guy named Paul Hardy and Paul’s like, “Well, you better fix it.” And the next day, we bring in some of the PVA (photovoltaic assembly) experts at JPL, and we got some people from Spectrolab to come over and talk about what we could do to repair it. And thank goodness we had a repair plan in place, and they had done this before.

[20:25] But we couldn’t do it, because we need to pack the vehicle up. So we had to figure out a way to ship it even though this one cell was cracked. We packed everything up; it went to Florida. The rover came off the truck, went into the antechamber, sort of the pre-clean room. We opened up the rover, we took the panel off. We did the repair. We put the panel back on. That was two days. And by the time the rover was scheduled to be in the actual clean room at the Kennedy Space Center, we had already fixed it, so most people actually didn’t know it happened. (laughs) But I knew it happened.

[20:56] And I have two kids, and I can’t imagine if I, like, stepped on them accidentally and broke something, I don’t know how I would ever forgive myself. And that’s how I felt, like, “Oh my goodness, how am I going to forgive myself? I just broke my kid!” (laughs) Today I can laugh about it. I can tell you back then, I didn’t laugh.

But part of the idea is that you have to be able to make mistakes. We’re doing things that nobody else would even try to do, and it’s not necessarily about what you do wrong, it’s how you fix it. And how are we going to keep that mistake from happening again? Some people can take that stress and move forward, and I’m not trying to say I did great, but it’s part of why we pick the jobs that we do.

[21:33] You know, my whole life, I’ve been an athlete. I’ve played competitive sports, played hockey at the Division 1 level. And so for me, this was like one of those things where you’ve got two minutes left in the third period, you’re down by a goal, you’ve pulled your goalie, for those that understand hockey references. And you want to be on the ice. And so, when that shows up and you get that opportunity, you either get to rise to it or you don’t. And there’s so many people around JPL that are that type of person, that they rise to that occasion.

(sound of hockey game crowd and ice skating)

[22:08] Narrator:Kobie’s connection to the ice began early, when he was growing up just outside of Omaha, Nebraska.

Kobie Boykins:My community was literally built in the middle of a cornfield. And so, as kids, we were always out running around and doing all kinds of crazy stuff, play football, play golf, ride your bikes in the cornfield, sometimes even drive the tractor, even though we weren’t supposed to. Now, my mom had had us ice skating, my sister and I; we were even part of the “Mickey on Ice.” And so, my sister was dressed up as Minnie Mouse and I was dressed up as Mickey Mouse. I think I was four. And, you know, we have the double-bladed skates. We were the kids that walked out first, right – we weren’t really part of the show, but we were part of the show. And we got mad at each other, and we started fighting.

[22:47](sound of crowd reaction)

Kobie Boykins:So here’s Mickey and Minnie fighting on the ice as all this stuff is going on. So I think the die was cast that I was gonna be a hockey player.

Anyway, later on a buddy of mine who had been skating and started playing hockey, he’s like, “Hey, you should come out and play some hockey.” And I just loved it. Now, it helped that I was naturally quick, and I had learned how to skate young enough that my body sort of understood how the ice worked, and so I was good at it because I was faster than everybody and I could just go around them and I could score, and it was really cool.

[23:07] (sound of ice skating)

And, you know, as a six-year-old, that’s awesome. And we played from the time we were what they call “half-ice mites,” little tiny kids up to eight years old, all the way through high school, and more or less the same core group of people played together for that whole period of time. And it just became sort of part of me.

[23:34] I mean, it gets cold in Nebraska. So, you know, in the winters, we could actually take out the garden hose and freeze the backyard or the cornfield and go skating, or go skate on the river or the lake. But it wasn’t like normal to play hockey. I mean, most people in Nebraska played football, you know, the University of Nebraska is a football town. I like to play football, but I was just better at hockey.

Narrator:Not only was ice hockey not the typical Nebraska sport, Kobie wasn’t your typical small-town Midwesterner.

[24:00] Kobie Boykins:My mother is Caucasian; she’s German and Swedish. My father is African-American. And so having a mixed family in a very, very small community of not a lot of diversity was a very interesting thing. Looking back on it… how old I was, I don’t remember, but I was at the store with my mother, and another woman that was in the store, getting groceries or whatever it was, says, “Oh, what a beautiful black child you have.” And I looked at my mom and I’m like, “I’m not black!” And she goes, “No son, you’re paper-sack brown.” (laughs)

[24:33] Anyway, there was probably all this stuff that we would probably call now microaggressions and things that I sort of learned and figured out ways to maneuver around. And I think it gave me a very thick skin.

And there’s some really nice things about growing up in the Midwest, not in that particular vein, but there’s a very good sense of community, and what it means to be a friend. Some of the friends that I had growing up are still my friends. My best friend was the kid that just lived two streets over, and he’s still my best friend in the world.

[25:05] Narrator: Kobie also appreciates how growing up in his small Nebraska town helped give him an engineer’s mindset.

Kobie Boykins:I think one of the things that’s nice about growing up in a small community where you don’t have a lot, is you figure out ways to use the things that you have. You know, like, “Oh, the pipes are frozen. How do we fix them? What do we have that has heat? Or do you take a fan and blow the air out, and allow the heat to get sucked in?” And I didn’t know anything about air ducting and stuff like that, but we did that, and then it’s like, “Oh, look, the water is working again!”

[25:34] You learn how to see the world in a very critical and imaginative way. Like, “What could I use to do this particular thing?” And I think that actually helps in the engineering disciplines, because if you just get the education, if you just get the school knowledge and you’re not able to apply it, it’s not the same. You hear people say that, “I can build a spacecraft with duct tape and baling wire,” which isn’t a hundred percent true, but it’s not a hundred percent untrue either.

Narrator: Kobie wasn’t considering the possibility of working on spaceships someday, until he was taken aside by his frustrated fifth-grade teacher.

[26:12] Kobie Boykins:I’m pretty animated. I move around a lot. And so, if you can imagine me in fifth grade, running around, bouncing off the walls. I was the class clown. And that’s great for me, it’s not great for a teacher. I was sent to the principal’s office plenty of times, and out in the hall a lot.

And I had a conversation with my fifth-grade teacher, name is Mrs. Hanson. She’d come out in the hall and was like, “Kobie, what do you want to do?” And I said, “Oh, I want to be the engineer on the Starship Enterprise.” At the time, I was really into “Star Trek.” And she goes, “Well, what’s stopping you from being able to do that?”

[26:45] And why it mattered to me at that time, I have no idea. Right, because normally if somebody would say that, it would just go in one ear and out the other. But it stopped in the middle of my head, and I noodled around on it for a while. And I’m like, “Yeah, what is stopping me from doing that?” And then she said, “You can do anything you want to do. You have all the ability in the world. If you want something, go after it.”

And from fifth grade, then through sixth grade with my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Kaiser, I started challenging myself. They started challenging me. I did “Olympics of the Mind,” which was a competition for elementary school students – “Jeopardy” for kids, if you will. And, you know, I just started reading and learning and started tinkering a lot more, which made my mother very unhappy; my father hated me because there was no electronics in our house that were ever together. I always wanted to figure out how things worked. So that started this love of the engineering discipline. And by the time I was through high school, I had really excelled in mathematics and chemistry and those kinds of things.

(“Star Trek: The Next Generation” theme music)

[27:43] Kobie Boykins:Then you come out with “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” And there’s a person, LeVar Burton, who I’d known from “Reading Rainbow” as a kid. He’s the engineer on the Enterprise.

Geordi La Forge:La Forge to Bridge, I’ve got a problem down here, the magnetic interlock’s been ruptured. I – (explosion) Coolant leak, we have a coolant leak everybody! Let’s go, let’s get out of here, everybody out, let’s move…

Kobie Boykins:So, Geordi La Forge, and it was just another person that I could relate to. He looked more like me, and had this really important part in the ship, and he made everything work and go. And so, I was like, “Ooh, I want to be that guy.”

[28:15] Narrator:When Kobie was deciding where to go to college, he was guided by his twin loves of engineering and hockey.

Kobie Boykins:So one of the reasons that I ended up at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was because they had a Division 1 hockey team and a great engineering program. So I got to play Division 1 hockey.

“Play” is a very interesting term. I was on the team for three years; never played a game. But I did get a jersey, so that was cool. And we won a championship, at least in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference, so I got a ring that says I was a champion on the championship team, but I was a practice player, and that was a good experience too.

[28:46] You know, it’s funny; people are like, “Oh, Kobie, you’re always looking at the bright side.” But there was a really good thing to that.I got to practice with these guys who are amazing hockey players, all of them better than me. I understood why I sat on the bench or didn’t play. I got better; there’s no question. I learned a lot in my three years of being on the team. And it forced me to wake up early because we were on the ice early. It forced me to manage time for my studies, and things like that. And so, from that perspective, it was awesome.

Narrator: In addition to its hockey team and engineering classes, his university also offered the chance to work at JPL, to help design NASA’s first Mars rover, Sojourner.

[29:21] Kobie Boykins:We had the opportunity to leave school for a semester and a summer, work for between six and eight months, and the first job that I was asked to do was to work on the rover. And the person who hired me, his name is Don Bickler, and he wanted myself and another student to work with the computer-aided design system.

So there was no physical rover; this was literally in the computer. It was just lines. And, you know, you could see it looked like a rover when you zoomed way far enough, but when you get closer, it’s just lines going other different places. And we asked one of the full-time engineers that was working on the task, “Oh, is this a copy of the real model, so that if we mess something up, it won’t ruin the actual rover that you guys are gonna fabricate?” And he was like, “No, no, that’s the real one. We don’t know how to make a copy.”

[30:08] And as you can imagine, for two students, we were freaking out like, “Oh my goodness, we could actually do something that would harm this whole mission.”

Narrator: After working on a virtual Sojourner in the computer, Kobie got to help create actual parts for the little rover’s six wheels.

Kobie Boykins:We had to come up with a way for the wheels to have a lot more traction, if you will. And so, what we ended up doing is making this thing that looks like some kind of torture device. It has cleats that look very sharp and they’re really a stamped metal. As young labor as I was, my job was to actually sit there in front of a press and then manually make all of these cleats. So there’s quite a few days of just sitting there with pre-cut steel, a good workout every day to make these little cleats.

[30:51] It was really cool because now I could say, “Hey, I have hardware on the surface of Mars.” Even though I had nothing really to do with the design, it was just, “You’re manual labor – go do that.”

Narrator: In Kobie’s next student stint at JPL, he helped test the airbag landing system that would get the Sojourner rover and Pathfinder lander safely down to the surface of Mars. Part of this required what seemed to be, at first, an incredibly simple task.

Kobie Boykins:“Kobie, we need rocks.” And I’m like, “Oh, there’s lots of rocks out here in the San Gabriel mountains at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.” So I was like, “We’ll just go get rocks.” No, that wasn’t good enough. And so I got together with one of our scientists and we drove out into the desert and we went around picking out rocks that would be similar to what we thought we would encounter on Mars.

[31:34] And we were going to put these on a stand that was put into a test facility in Plum Brook, Ohio, which is a big, huge vacuum chamber where we can evacuate the air, make it feel more like what it is on Mars. We’re going to accelerate the airbags against that and then try to hit rocks that would simulate Mars in this environment to make sure our airbags were working properly.

And so, you know, we picked these rocks and we figured out ways to hold them on this huge stand. And they did that first test and the stand broke. That was really sad, but we didn’t hurt anybody, which is the best part. And we learned a lot about how rocks interact with this air bag material as we hit the surface of Mars.

[32:08] And then, we had this thing called “the multi-system body drop test.” It was done all by students, which was really cool. So there’s a back shell – the back shell looks like a cone, more or less. There’s a parachute up there in the air. And then there’s the airbag system, which has the rover inside. And we were building this thing to drop it out of a helicopter and watch it do its dynamics as it was flying. And we couldn’t get to really high altitude, which is what you need to actually exactly show what Mars was, but it was okay. We could simulate it well enough. And so, we were building it, and then I had to go back to school. But they were going to do this test. And this is the story, as I heard it.

[32:40] (sounds of helicopter, parachute, wind)

Kobie Boykins:They’re up in a helicopter, they drop it. And the parachute opens. Now, the parachute is going to go where the wind takes it. And sometimes the wind might not take you the right direction. And in this particular case, it didn’t.

[32:59] This thing’s falling out of the sky, it’s heading toward this populated road. And, (laughs) you can imagine the craziness that happens as people are trying to move people out of the way and make sure that they don’t hurt the hardware and we don’t hurt anybody as this thing is falling out of the sky. But it turns out good. It ended up in a field, and nobody got hurt, and we recovered it. So I got to see it afterwards, and nothing broke. So I was very happy. (laughs)

I mean, we talk about alien encounters, can you imagine seeing this thing, it looks like a huge ball with a parachute behind it, and it’s falling toward Earth, you know, here’s “War of the Worlds” happening in real time. You can imagine, like somebody sees that and goes, “Oh my goodness, this is it. Things are happening!” (laughs)

[33:28] (sci-fi sound effect)

Narrator:Kobie started working full-time at JPL after graduating college, just a few months before Sojourner arrived on Mars. As he settled into his job working on space missions in the Los Angeles area, Kobie traded in his ice skates for rollerblades.

Kobie Boykins:If you remember – most people probably won’t – there was this real crazy thing that ESPN did for a while called “Pro Beach Roller Hockey,” where they made a roller rink on the beach and we played hockey. And I did that for two years. So I actually made it to pro, in roller hockey at the beach.

[34:12] (crowd noise)ESPN Announcer 1:And of course, you know, the beach has that laid-back Southern California attitude. Guess what? It’s not laid back when you’re out there playing the game. It’s competitive. These guys want to win! There’s pride on the line, there’s a trophy on the line, there’s money on the line.ESPN Announcer 2: You don’t reach the level of professionalism that many of these guys have without that competitive edge.

[34:34] Kobie Boykins:They didn’t pay us a lot, but they paid us to show up there and sweat and skate around with roller blades. The transition from ice to rollers is pretty easy, little different skating style, but not much different. But you know, really high-end hockey that they decided to put on TV, and as crazy as it is now thinking about it, it was a lot of fun. (laughs)

Narrator:In his work at JPL, Kobie didn’t transition right away to the next Mars rovers – instead, he was focused on a rover that could land on an asteroid.

[35:02] Kobie Boykins:The rover was called Nanorover. And it was this really, really small – think of it about the size of a pencil box – rover, that we were going to send with the Japanese Space Agency to Itokawa – the asteroid – on a mission called Hayabusa. And so were going to send this little tiny rover; it was going to get thrown off their spacecraft; it was going to land on the surface. And we were going to image the Japanese sampling the surface. That was the goal. It was a totally new technology, a little rover that could hop and flip over and control itself and communicate back to Earth.

[35:33] And at the time I was so enamored with the idea – and probably still am – that at JPL, one of the things we need to do is do the exploration and inspire the next generation. The other thing, which Sojourner did, is really push forward the way we do investigations. Even though we now think of it, “Oh, it was the first rover.” It was a tech demo. If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t have fallen apart. It would have just been, “Well, we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to make that work.” You know, as an engineer, you always want to challenge yourself. So for a long time, I tried to hold out, I didn’t want to work on the Mars Exploration Rovers. I got to do something that we had never done with this new, tiny rover that was going to go to an asteroid.

[36:12] And then, it got canceled. That’s a long story, but my boss at the time, he comes into my office and he said, “Kobie, how would you like a six-month half-time job? I got this job doing the solar array for the Mars Exploration Rovers.” “Yep, I’m in, just tell me what I need to do.” And that six-month half-time job turned into a full-time for… whatever it was until launch from then, at least three years, that I worked on those vehicles. And it just sort of became a labor of love.

[36:40] Narrator: Kobie’s connection to Spirit and Opportunity was much stronger than to Sojourner.

Kobie Boykins:At the end of the day, Sojourner didn’t feel like my rover. It felt like a rover I got to work on, and there was things I got to do working on it, but it didn’t feel like mine. It was the group of people who were ahead of me – and I say ahead of me, they were the engineers that started five to 10 years before me. That was the team that really felt that connection to the rover. It wasn’t until we got into the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, that I really felt that exact same connection. And so, Spirit and Opportunity was just this totally different feel, you know? I was ingrained in the team, and those were like my children.

[37:19] Narrator: After Spirit was assembled and tested, the ATLO team began the next phase of the rover’s journey: launching into space. As they were loading Spirit onto a truck for its cross-country ride to Kennedy Space Center, a 5.4 magnitude earthquake hit southern California, rattling windows and nerves. The earthquake didn’t cause any notable damage, and in a way, it was a preview for the rumbling rocket that would soon send Spirit into the sky.

(sound of rocket launch)
Mission Control:
…two, one, engine start, and lift-off of the Delta 2 rocket carrying the Spirit from Earth to planet Mars…

[37:55] Narrator: Spirit launched on June 10th, 2003, after a delay of a few days caused by stormy weather. Opportunity was set to follow its twin on a separate rocket two weeks later, but it had even more trouble getting off the ground.


Narrator: First, a band of protective cork insulation glued on the Delta 2 rocket started peeling off. After repairing the insulation, a launch attempt began, only to be scrubbed due to weather. The launch attempt after that ended when the brand-new cork insulation came off yet again, requiring a deeper investigation into what was causing the glue to fail. Days ticked by, each one eating into Opportunity’s three-week launch window, making it seem like the rover could miss its opportunity to fly to Mars.

By July 5th, the cork issue was resolved, and another launch attempt began… only to drain away when one of the batteries on the rocket lost its charge.

[38:59] Mission Control: There are two launch times available to us tonight…

Narrator: The next countdown on July 7th seemed to be going well.

Mission Control: Thirty-five seconds. Electronics, go. Hydraulics, go. Green board here in the Mission Director’s Center…

Narrator: All systems were “go,” and as the minutes counted down to seconds, two members of the rover team began to play bagpipes to herald Opportunity’s imminent launch.


Narrator: Then, 7 seconds before lift-off, the countdown was halted yet again.

[39:31] Mission Control: Hold, we’ve had a hold. We’ve had a cut-off. Fill-and-drain closure valve failure. Error. Page 18, pick-up page 18…

(bagpipes deflate with a depressing groan)

Narrator: This time, the trouble was a liquid oxygen valve that started misbehaving.

Mission Control: Safing of the vehicle is underway. Prop 2 PSD purge, press “closed.” It’s closed.

[40:00] Narrator: The launch team was able to quickly stand down the rocket that was ready to blast off, and then ran the valve through several tests.

Mission Control:At this point, we’re trying to get into a safe condition so we can assess the situation and then decide if we can make the second opportunity tonight…

Narrator: Satisfied that the valve was working after all, the launch countdown was restarted.

Mission Control:…six, five, four, three, two, main engine start, zero, and lift-off of the Delta rocket with Opportunity, a chance to explore and unlock the secrets of our neighboring planet…

(bagpipe music)

[40:35] Narrator: Finally, Opportunity left Earth for its six-month flight to Mars. While Spirit had launched in daylight, rising through the wide blue sky on a tower of billowing white clouds, Opportunity launched at night, its rocket a piercing orange flame that traced a bright line high into the darkness.

[41:01]We’ll continue the journey of Spirit and Opportunity in the next episode, to follow their very different paths on Mars.

After helping build these rovers, Kobie went on to the two that followed – Curiosity and Perseverance – making him one of the elite few who have worked on all five of NASA’s Mars rovers.

Kobie Boykins:Don Bickler, the guy that hired me when I first started here, he said something that stuck with me. He goes, “You can go off and you can get a higher-level degree, get a master’s degree, get a PhD. But you work here, you build hardware, you deliver that hardware to go to another place. You’re the only person in the world that’s ever done that.”

[41:36]So, at that time when we did the Mars Exploration Rovers, the only deployed solar array on the surface of another planet was Spirit and Opportunity. And I built it. That was an amazing thing. I mean like, think about it: I’m the only person in the world that had ever done that. Now it’s been done again. But at the time, I was the guy!


[41:59] Kobie Boykins:You know, the Mars program and the Mars rovers themselves are an extension of us. And that, just as much as I feel like they’re my children, they’re our children as well, because we don’t get to do any of this work without the people here in the United States thinking this is the right thing to do. And we think that there is a real reason to do it, not just a scientific reason, but a thing that drives us as explorers, and can inspire children in a way that just seeing it in a book can’t.

[42:34]And one of the goals of NASA is to inspire the next generation – definitely a goal here at JPL. I get to interact with kids and students, and I get to see their eyes light up when a concept makes sense. And I get a little choked up, but I went home to Nebraska; there’s a museum there and I gave a talk, just, “Hey, this is what I get to do.” And a young person from that audience now works here at JPL. And when he showed up, he said, “You’re the reason I’m here.” And I can’t explain how that hits you. But it does. It makes you feel like, “Yep. This was the place I was supposed to be.”

[43:16] Narrator: We’re “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If you enjoyed this episode, please follow and rate us on your favorite podcast platform. Be sure to check out our other episodes, and NASA’s other podcasts – they can all be found at NASA-dot-gov, forward slash, podcasts.


(run time = 43:35)