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

6/26/13Follow @bromano

Nearly a year later, it still sends tingles up your spine: The sounds and images of the spacecraft slamming into the Martian atmosphere, precisely depositing its payload—the car-sized Curiosity rover—on the surface using an untested “sky crane” maneuver, and then the cheers of rapt space fans from around the world.

“I actually still get nervous watching that video,” NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi—now perhaps better known by his presidentially bestowed nickname, Mohawk guy—admits after showing a clip of the dramatic Mars landing that went off without a hitch last August.

Ferdowsi is quick to remind an audience at the University of Washington, his alma mater, that he is just one of thousands who had a hand in the Mars Science Laboratory project. Nevertheless, the 33-year-old has become the de facto face—or rather, haircut—of a “cool” new NASA in need of something to excite the public imagination in the post-Space Shuttle period.

Ferdowsi, a standout student in aerospace engineering at UW and MIT, dyed his mohawk rocket-flame red at launch in November 2011. As flight director, Ferdowsi was responsible for the countdown procedure and operations during the journey from Earth to Mars. On the evening of August 5, 2012, he had stars emblazoned into the sides of his head and red and blue highlights in the mohawk—a design chosen by colleagues who were polled in advance.

He was featured prominently as cameras filmed live in mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, during the tense “Seven Minutes of Terror” as the spacecraft reached the Red Planet’s atmosphere going 13,000 miles an hour and executed a complicated, autonomous sequence of moves that ended with the Curiosity rover being lowered from a hovering sky crane to a landing zone in Gale Crater.

Jubilation

There was jubilation when Curiosity sent back word that it had landed safely, and, moments later, when it relayed the first thumbnail images from the Martian surface. Since then, it has provided stunning high-resolution panoramas of Mars, and an ongoing stream of new information about the planet, including the discovery of smooth, rounded rocks suggesting that liquid water once flowed in streambeds there.

The morning after the landing, Ferdowsi realized his image had raced around the world. His inbox overflowed with thousands of emails.

UW aerospace engineering professor Adam Bruckner describes Ferdowsi as “NASA’s coolest person, the mohawk guy.” It was President Obama who bestowed that nickname, telling the Curiosity crew in a congratulatory call after the landing last year, “It does sound like NASA has come a long way from the white shirt, dark-rimmed glasses, and the pocket protectors, you know. You guys are a little cooler than you used to be.”

Ferdowsi marched in Obama’s second inaugural parade next to a replica of Curiosity, and sat in the First Lady Michelle Obama’s box during the State of the Union address in February.

“I’ve had a very surreal last year in my life,” Ferdowsi tells a lecture hall full of aerospace professionals, students, and researchers Monday. He was the main draw to a symposium held by the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation, a new effort to unite academic researchers and the aerospace industry in Washington state.

Ferdowsi never expected to become such a visible symbol of the American space program, circa 2013. He has had, in his words, an “unfair share of thanks.”

But he has taken it in stride, using his elevated status to help excite a new generation of explorers—there are now kids out there sporting Ferdowsi-inspired mohawks—and spread the message that you can come to science and engineering as you are.

“I think that it’s unfortunate that people really perceive our industry as stuffy,” says Ferdowsi, who also plays shortstop in the JPL softball league. At JPL, “there’s a variety of personalities, backgrounds, tattoos, colored hair, you name it.”

It takes people of all kinds to come up with audacious maneuvers, such as the sky-crane landing, done in part 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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