NASA’s ‘Coolest Person’ Says It Takes All Kinds to Push Boundaries

6/26/13Follow @bromano

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to avoid kicking up a cloud of dust that could have damaged the rover. It was never given a whole-system test on Earth for financial and other reasons—though extensive computer simulations were performed—and was “affectionately called ‘hope on a rope,’” Ferdowsi says.

“The stuff that we do is constantly pushing the boundary of what engineering and science can do, and I think having those personalities around—people who have their own personality—that’s critical to what we do here,” Ferdowsi says. “You have to be able to bring in that diversity of thought in order to get to some very creative solutions to problems.”

Ferdowsi was born in Philadelphia, PA, and lived in San Francisco during his early childhood, before moving to Japan for high school. (He is fluent in Japanese.) He enrolled at UW in 1997.

Bruckner, who taught Ferdowsi as an undergraduate, remembers him as a quiet, studious, straight-A student, who always wanted to work on missions to Mars. (Formerly the UW aeronautics and astronautics department chair, Bruckner researches Mars in situ resource utilization, among other space subjects.)

Ferdowsi earned a master’s degree from MIT, working on the Lean Aerospace Initiative.

Curiosity self portrait

On graduating, he took a position with JPL. He has worked as a mission planner and integrated launch and cruise verification and validation engineer on the Mars Science Laboratory, as well as science planner on the Cassini mission to Saturn.

“So he’s been all over the solar system,” Bruckner quips.

Ferdowsi continues to be amazed by the work on Curiosity. After a computer glitch about 200 days into the mission on Mars, the team set to work on a fix, while shifting to a backup computer for operations. “The fact that we can upload new software to a thing 100 million kilometers away is crazy to me,” he says.

The Curiosity mission has been well received by the public. The landing, in particular, was widely followed, despite taking place on a Sunday night in the midst of the London Summer Olympics.

Ferdowsi attributes that success to an ongoing evolution in NASA’s outreach, particularly through social media, which started in earnest with the 2007 Mars Phoenix mission.

Posts to the Curiosity Twitter and Facebook accounts are done in the first person, and imbued with humor and pop culture references. “Making it feel like it was a sentient thing that people could interact with is very different,” Ferdowsi says.

Also, NASA released the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video about a month prior to the landing. It has more than two million views on YouTube. “It’s a little more polished, a little more of a movie-trailer kind of style,” he says. “It helped to build that sort of momentum that led into landing.”

NASA could probably do well by sending Ferdowsi on a national speaking tour. (He used a vacation day for the visit to UW, he says.)

Mount Sharp

Asked about this, Ferdowsi demurs, noting that he has a full-time job on the team caring for the rover—he often refers to it as “our baby”—which is preparing to embark on a six-month Martian road trip to the base of 18,000-foot Mount Sharp.

He showed the audience an iconic composite self-portrait Curiosity took on Mars. Seeing the object he had worked with on Earth on the surface of another planet was a powerful experience, he says.

“We sent it on its way with all the knowledge that we could, gave it the best effort that we could and said, ‘Hopefully, you’re successful,’” Ferdowsi says. “It’s an incredible feeling, and I think that’s one of the things we shared with the thousands of people who worked on this, knowing that their part was critical to making that happen.”

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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