As the rover called Curiosity made its hair-raising, breathtaking descent into the Martian atmosphere Sunday night, the viewers watching NASA’s live feed at home seemed to have just one question: Who’s that guy with the mohawk?
Flight director Bobak Ferdowsi’s eyes were trained on his monitor in the front row of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory control room as the Mars Science Laboratory made it through its final “seven minutes of terror” and touched down on the Red Planet. But many viewers’ eyes were fixed on Ferdowsi -- turning the Bay Area native into an online sensation in the ensuing hours and days, drawing some 43,000 Twitter followers and inspiring Internet memes.
Wearing a blue-and-red plaid shirt that perfectly complemented his hairstyle -- red and blue streaks in his Mohawk, with white stars bleached into the side -- Ferdowsi, 32, chatted Wednesday about his newfound fame, his style and his experiences on this ambitious NASA mission.
What’s your job on this NASA mission?
I’m one of a team of flight directors. I’ve been trying to draw this analogy of the “Apollo 13" Ed Harris role [who played flight director Gene Krantz]. What it really involves is taking a holistic view of the spacecraft operations and making sure that while we’re operating, we’re not doing anything to put the spacecraft at risk.
Not only is this our baby, because we worked so hard, but now it’s a national asset on Mars. We are responsible to everybody to make sure that we do our best to keep it safe and running for everybody.
Did you expect all this attention the night of the landing?
Not in the least. I thought there might be a funny comment or two somewhere, or a friend who says, “Oh I saw you on TV.” I’ve actually [already] been doing different hairstyles for different events in the mission.
What kind of styles?
I did one that I thought was way more crazy at launch -- it was red and orange and then gold at the bottom -- kind of looked like a rocket plume. So I thought that one was way more ridiculous.
This one, I thought, was one just kind of fun.… But I guess the world thought it was pretty crazy.
How’d you decide on the cut and color?
It’s been a mix. Sometimes I’ll just ask my different friends on the projects. But this time one of my coworkers put a poll up and sent an email out to my team and asked them to vote on different hair options, and they kind of overwhelmingly voted for red, white and blue. I think 40 or 50 people ended up voting.
What were their other choices?
I believe there was “Mars red,” there was “shave your head,” there was “natural,” and I feel like there might have been one more. But those are the ones I remember.
What did you think of the powder-blue shirts all NASA team members wore the night of the launch?
You know, they looked a lot better on camera than I thought they were going to look!
I was actually excited that we had a team shirt; I thought it was fun for the entire team … and of course it makes for an awesome souvenir. A positive thing. We all joked that we looked like Smurfs.
Why do you think your mohawk captivated so many people?
That’s tough. I do think that, for people who don’t have the opportunity to see NASA people every day, that it was a little bit of a shock. I think most people’s images are like the Apollo 13 version of NASA: the traditional white shirt, the narrow black tie, the horn-rimmed glasses.
But the reality is, even if you look back at some of these older pictures of Mission Control, there’s an old picture here at JPL of some guys wearing Spock ears for one of the launches. So I think there’s always been a sense of having fun for these things. All these missions are so much work and so hard that you have to find ways of enjoying them as well.
Like I said, I don’t think my hair is all that crazy for JPL and NASA.
Who else on the Mars mission has their own distinctive style?
Our esteemed Dr. Adam Steltzner, he’s got a pretty awesome rockabilly hairstyle. One of our other EDL people from Langley, she has a little red streak going on in her hair. So we have all types. Sitting right next to me was Steve Collins, and people affectionately call him a hippie guy -- he’s got long grayish hair and a good beard going on. So yeah, I think we have all sorts.
Obviously we have more typical looks as well but I think for people here, that diversity is really valued. What it really boils down to is we admire each other for the work we do.
What’s the next hairstyle going to be?
I don’t know. Maybe if we somehow make an amazing discovery in the next few weeks, maybe I’ll do something for that. Otherwise I think it’ll kind of grow out naturally, go back to a normal mohawk or faux-hawk. Maybe not so vibrant.
It just sort of evolves. I don’t want to be that guy who has the same haircut until I’m 70.
Do you think your image will inspire more kids to think NASA -- and science in general -- might actually be cool?
That would be like a dream come true for me. I would love to be working here 10 years from now and some guy who was in high school or middle school at the time sees me and is like, “I remember you, you’re one of the reasons I got into NASA.” Even if one kid is like that, I’d probably get a little emotional.
I think the stuff we do here so is so cool, and I’m OK with kind of being an example of 1) it takes all types and 2) you don’t have to look like anything -- you can be who you are. As long as you have a passion and a willingness to work hard, you can work here.
I can’t really explain how incredible an experience this whole thing has been.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.