By Amina Khan
3:39 PM PST, February 12, 2013
NASA's Twitter celebrity "Mohawk Guy" helped send a rover to Mars, but now he's landing at the White House, thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama, and he'll be rocking a brand new hairstyle for the occasion.
Bobak Ferdowsi shot to fame the night the Mars Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet, when his stars-and-stripes hairstyle captivated viewers worldwide. His faux-hawk even earned a shout-out from President Obama, who joked that he had toyed with the idea of trying a similar 'do.
Now, the first lady has invited the 33-year-old Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer to be one of her guests at the president's State of the Union address tonight. In a phone interview, Ferdowsi, sporting his new look, talked hair, science, politics and the Mars mission's near future.
What was your reaction when you got the call?
Shocked, a little bit taken aback, obviously. I was driving so I just needed a moment to recompose myself. But it was very exciting. I think anybody would be really thrilled to have an opportunity like this.… It’s totally crazy. Mostly I’m excited to meet the first lady.
Are you planning what to say to her?
No, not off the top of my head -- I’m just trying not to be too nervous. I’ve gotten a lot of texts from my friends telling me what I should talk to her about. A couple of them were telling me to tell her they like her bangs. And [to talk about] more planetary science funding. So you know, the usual.
Do you have a new hairstyle for the event?
I do. I got it cut yesterday. It's a little patriotic. I have USA on one side and my other home, Mars, on the other side.
You had a different haircut when you marched in the presidential inauguration parade last month. What did each side look like?
What do you think your presence at the State of the Union represents?
I think it’s mostly to represent NASA and the Curiosity team after this year’s accomplishments. And that’s obviously a real honor for me. But it’s also a moment to showcase NASA’s work in science and technology, and the fact that Curiosity has really inspired a lot of young kids to go into science and engineering.
The president's 2013 budget has planned to cut NASA's Mars funding by about 38%. Is the administration sending mixed messages here?
I don’t really work on the budget, obviously, as an engineer on the project. That’s not my thing. But I do think this administration is committed to NASA and to moving forward with our goals, both in manned and unmanned flight. So in general I don’t think there’s a mixed message there.
What would you be if you weren't an engineer?
I think I ultimately would have stuck with engineering. I like challenges, in terms of solving problems, so it seems like a natural step. I used to play with Legos as a kid. If it wasn’t that, I may have been in automotive engineering. Or if it were nowadays, something like green power technology. That’s a scenario that I think is really cool and interesting.
What does the future hold for you and Mars?
I’m really excited to see what’s coming up with Curiosity. We just did our first drilling on Mars, so we still want to see the result from that. And I think we have a pretty interesting campaign coming up in terms of getting to Mt. Sharp and doing interesting analyses along the way. So that’ll be cool.
Do you get recognized in the street?
I do not. I’m very fortunate. I can go to my local coffee shop in the morning and no one knows who I am. I just go as me. I think people just think I’m some crazy guy.
As a pop culture icon yourself, who do you look up to?
There’s a number of people I truly admire at my job, in part because I was so inspired by 1997’s Pathfinder mission to Mars – a few of the people, like Rob Manning, who worked so much on that. It’s been a real privilege for me to be able to work with them on Curiosity.
Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.
This interview was edited for clarity.
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