The wild ones

What does it take to be a rocket scientist or a big cat photographer? NTU students find out as NASA engineer Kobie Boykins and National Geographic lensman Steve Winter land on campus

By Derek Rodriguez
It’s just rocket science

Life as a young and spunky rocket scientist is not all glitz and glamour, says Kobie Boykins. It’s a lot of hard work as well.

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What’s your daily routine like?

“When working on the rovers, I would get to work at 7am and work until 10am or 11am at night, then go home and sleep. I did that seven days a week for two-and-a-half years! Now I leave at 6pm, because my wife makes me leave.”

Why do we need to explore space?

“Mars is what Earth could look like one day. From space exploration, we can learn about the evolution of our planet. We also need to inspire the next generation of explorers. It’s human nature to be curious and there are few things that capture the imagination and the dreams of the youth of the world like space exploration.”

Can life on Mars be sustained?

“Yes, but not without manipulation. At its warmest, Mars is 20°C, but only up to your shin or knee. At your waist it’s 0°C, and at your head it’s -100°C. Still, plants could live there, but for the radiation.”

What meaning would finding evidence of life on Mars have for life on Earth? What if no life is found on Mars?

“The question should be: How intelligent is or was that life? How will we react when we find out we aren’t unique in the universe? If no life is found on Mars, which is hard to believe, we redefine our algorithm and continue to search for life in our solar system and outside of it.”

What’s the most dangerous situation you have encountered at work?

“Testing in the high desert. It was so hot that my shoes melted.”

Given its small size, how do you think Singapore can contribute to space exploration?

“I don’t think the size of the community matters. It’s the ability to go after the unknown that grows people. Failure will happen, but how you pick yourself up is what really matters in life and in exploration.

The Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity are responsible for much of what we know about the Red Planet. Incredibly, they were almost named Beavis and Butt-head, confessed Kobie Boykins.

Speaking to a packed Nanyang Auditorium on 24 August, the NASA engineer detailed the life of the rovers and the Mars science laboratory Curiosity. For an hour, he regaled the captivated crowd with inspirational, and often hilarious, anecdotes.

The loudest laughter and cheers were reserved for when Kobie revealed his team secretly designed the tracks on Curiosity so that it would leave his company’s initials (JPL) in Morse code on the surface of Mars.

Two days later, award-winning lensman Steve Winter (above centre) conducted a photography workshop at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information. The fearless cameraman is known for getting up close with large cats but displayed some of his other equally glorious work and gamely described how he nailed the shots.

Mr Winter was also one of the judges of the LIGHT & LIFE Photography Competition, which drew over 800 entries from the NTU community (see Gallery).