Hard work and passion lead to his dream career

NASA engineer Kobie Boykins returns to Madison this month to present “Beyond Earth: The Quest for Life on an Icy Moon” at Overture Center for the Arts on Tuesday, Sept. 19 in Capitol Theater as part of the Changemaker Speaker Series. Boykins is excited to give audiences a first-hand account of how to build spacecrafts and NASA’s amazing space missions.

Boykins has worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., since his college days 28 years ago. He is now the principal mechanical engineer at NASA and chief engineer for the Europa Clipper, which is scheduled to launch in October 2024. For this lifelong Star Trek fan, working in the space industry is a dream come true.

“What do I like best about my job? All of it! I get to play and learn every day,” said Boykins. “I love to challenge myself and those I work with in unique ways. I get to explore questions that don’t yet have answers.”

Boykins has always been inspired by Star Trek actor and director LeVar Burton. In his youth, he pictured himself being in Burton’s role. When he was in fifth grade, one of his teachers told him that he really could do a job like that if he put his mind to it. 

That’s when it clicked, and Boykins’ future became clear: he was going to be an engineer working in the space industry.

Boykins attended Omaha Northwest High School and lived in Nebraska until college. He then moved to New York to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He accepted a position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory while a student and started working on projects. 

At NASA, Boykins designed the solar array systems for the Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity. He designed the actuators on the Mars rover Curiosity and supervised its mobility and remote sensing teams. In 2013, he was awarded the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal.

“As an engineer, I look at what information someone wants, and then I find a way to get that information,” said Boykins. “I design, build, test and deliver the hardware—from the concept to the actual spacecraft that goes up into space.”

Earlier in his career, Boykins was part of NASA’s M-Team, which lectured nationally to students regarding careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This led to his lecturing internationally for National Geographic regarding exploration on Mars. 

Boykins has continued the speaking circuit for the past 20 years, now as a member of the Changemaker Speaker Series. Changemaker speakers are the dreamers, builders, makers, problem solvers and wizards among us. These changemakers share insights about the world around us, help us move forward thoughtfully, strive to solve big problems, bridge the distance between us and lift us up, one story at a time. 

Overture’s Changemaker Speakers Series includes Boykins’ presentation on Tuesday, Sept. 19 as well as “Luck is a State of Mind” with Deanne Fitzmaurice on Tuesday, Jan. 16 and “Inside Secrets of the Whales” with Brian Skerry on April 23. All presentations begin at 7:30 p.m. in Capitol Theater and are immediately followed by a question-and-answer session with the speaker.  

Boykins presents about three shows each year for the Changemaker Speakers Series. His Overture presentation will be his first time talking about the Europa Clipper. 

“We’re going to look at Earth’s largest celestial neighbor, Jupiter, and its ice moon, Europa,” he said. “I’ll talk about what we’re looking for on our mission, the risks and what we hope to do and find.”

Boykins aspires to share the engineering and science behind the story. He recognizes that it may be challenging to read about technical careers but says it’s easier to understand in a live show with an expert walking you through it.

“As a scientist and engineer, if I can inspire even one person to pursue this field, that would be incredible,” he said. 

For students heading back to school this fall, Boykins gives three tips: 

  1. Never let somebody steal your dreams or say you can’t achieve something. You can do anything if you persevere. 
  2. There is no substitute for hard work. Do a great job in all you do. 
  3. Always be curious. You must ask questions about the world you’re in. 

Boykins looks forward to exploring the question “Does life exist in space?” and will delve into the scientific process of finding the answer when he visits Madison this month.