Boykins
NASA

Most of us will never work on a spacecraft, but there was something relatable about NASA employees celebrating the successful landing of Curiosity on Mars on Aug. 6. For college hockey, the unbridled joy in those viral videos resembled something we see each April at the Frozen Four.

Former RPI player Kobie Boykins -- once an Engineer on the ice, now an engineer for NASA -- sees those similarities.

“It feels the same way as when you win a championship or you win that big game,” Boykins said recently from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “It doesn’t matter what part you played. On landing day you had 10,000 people who had a hand in the project, maybe more, experiencing that excitement.”

Boykins speaks humbly; he had a bigger role than most, and Curiosity marks the third Mars mission he has worked on. He’s not yet 40, but has projects scattered on the surface of the red planet the way kids leave toys in the backyard.

A Technical Group Supervisor at JPL, he and his team were responsible for delivering the actuators -- in layman’s terms, the transmission and motor -- for Curiosity. The viral videos featured NASA’s Entry, Descent and Landing team, so Boykins wasn’t a part of those, but without him the spacecraft literally would not have gotten off the ground.

At RPI, Boykins played a less prominent role. As a high school hockey player in Omaha, Neb., he knew he wanted to work for NASA and hoped to walk on to a college team.

“One of the reasons I chose RPI was that it had a Division I hockey program,” Boykins said. “It was the best of both worlds. It was a no-brainer once I visited there.”

Current Boston University assistant coach Buddy Powers was leading the Engineer program at the time and gave Boykins a chance. “I was a bench player,” Boykins recalled. “My job was to press guys in practice, to make them better. That was my job and I took it to heart.

“I loved being out there. It was a great time of my life.”

Boykins, Class of '96 at RPI, fondly recalled the team’s trip to Lake Placid for the ECAC championship his freshman year -- “I was out there replaying the U.S. goal” -- and the camaraderie of the team.

“Across the board it was an unbelievable group of guys,” he said. “We had a really strong team and a good team atmosphere.”

Boykins was one of four engineering students on the roster, balancing the academic rigors with teammates Ken Kwasniewski, Chris Maye and Eric Perardi.

“I enjoyed the structure of having a class schedule and a hockey schedule,” he said. “It was all regimented for me, and you had to put in the hours.”

By junior year, Boykins’ potential was clear to NASA, and he reached a crossroads in his hockey career when he was offered an internship at the JPL. “It was not something I could pass up,” he said, and he left Troy, N.Y., at midseason. When his teammates won the ECAC title that spring, he was watching on TV -- much like those of us who cheered Curiosity’s landing from afar.

His ties to hockey and RPI have remained strong throughout his time in California, however. He plays regularly and spent some time coaching. He coached future Denver star and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Beau Bennett when he was 9 years old.

Boykins also remains connected with RPI, visiting last year for a reunion and heading back soon for his wife’s reunion. He stays in touch with current Engineers coach Seth Appert, who tweeted his congratulations to Boykins when Curiosity landed.

“Seth is really big on maintaining the history and culture of hockey at RPI, and it’s great to be a part of that,” Boykins said. “There’s a real nice sense of belonging with the current team and the older guys.”

With successful projects like Curiosity, Boykins gives the current Engineers -- and budding engineers everywhere -- an inspiring role model.

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