Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Advertise in our classifieds section
Your classified listing could be here!
October 4, 2022

The man behind the Mohawk

The Associated Press

Bobak Ferdowsi, flight director for the Mars rover Curiosity, who cuts his hair differently for each mission, works inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL in Pasadena, Calif. on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012.

While viewers anxiously watched Curiosity, NASA’s Mars Science Lander, during it’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” in the early morning hours of August 6, 2012, it was not a live feed of Mars they were seeing. Unlike human spaceflight missions, they watched the rover’s personality come alive via humorous tweets, cutting edge video simulations and the reactions of flight engineers in the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. The matching Polo shirts, crazy hair and unabated excitement in the control room combined with the meme-making explosion of fans on the internet spawned an unlikely STEM education hero. When he’s not making science cool again, NASA’s “Mohawk Guy,” Bobak Ferdowsi, enjoys sci-fi and music festivals with his friends. Ferdowsi had some great advice for students as he sat down with The Daily Texan via Skype.

The Daily Texan: First off, who did your hair?
Bobak Ferdowsi: I have a friend named Katie [Encaco] that works at The Factory (a hair and makeup studio with an in-house art exhibit and DJ booth) in Pasadena, CA.

DT: Where did you go to school?
Ferdowsi: I went to school at University of Washington and then MIT.

DT: On your way to NASA did you do any interning?
I worked through school. I had a research assistant position during undergrad, and then the same thing in grad school.

DT: What advice would you have for students, especially in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields?
Ferdowsi: I think you have to pick something you really like doing. There’s a lot of hard work of course. A lot of it comes down to just having good friends around you and the company. I personally really love the people I work with and that helps me get through a lot of the more difficult times. I think the other thing is you have to find reasonable goals along the way, milestones that you can achieve. For me it’s been nine years on this project, and if I was just waiting for this one, I would’ve probably given up a while ago. There’s little things along the way that you find, like I did this test really well or I did that, and that helps kind of keep you going.

DT: What inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry?
Ferdowsi: I always liked math and science of course, and as a kid, I would always sketch out cars and spacecraft and things like that. Then it just sort of seemed like a natural evolution I guess in some ways. I liked sci-fi, and I thought space was really cool. It’s something that is so unique to humanity. It’s something we can do that’s so much cooler than what one guy can do by himself. It’s like this team effort, and in doing it as a big team, you feel like, ‘Look at what we were able to accomplish.’ That’s really exciting, for me at least … the thought that I could be a part of something bigger.

DT: Some people have described Adam Steltzner (lead engineer of Curiosity’s Entry Descent and Landing phase) as sort of a hipster. How does he feel about you stealing the spotlight from his Elvis hair?
Ferdowsi: I hope I’m not stealing the spotlight. He is one of the most amazing people I know because he’s such a well-grounded person, and he has such a cool life, I think, in general. On top of all that, he’s leading this entry-descent-landing team, and obviously, you saw the results of that. I hope that I’m not stealing, and I don’t think that I’m stealing any of his spotlight. I have a little bit of idol worship when it comes to Adam, but I see him all the time, and we obviously work together. We’re having a good time. I think we’re just both enjoying the fact that MSL (NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory) was such a success.

DT: Have you ever been to Texas?
Ferdowsi: I’ve been to Dallas, Houston and Austin. I have family that lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, so I’ve been there a lot. I had a couple friends that went to UT-Austin, so I like it. It’s fun.

DT: You said you’ve been working on the Curiosity mission at NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) for nine years? When Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004, were you already planning for Curiosity?
Ferdowsi: We’ve actually been planning for Curiosity in one way or another probably since about 2001, so this is a little over almost eleven years now in the making by the time we landed. When I came on, it was kind of like the concept area. We were still working on like what is this mission going to achieve, what sort of technologies are we going to be able to have and demonstrate, what is going to be the feat forward for science, and in our case, what is going to be the big feat forward for the landing system?

DT: I know your social media presence has sort of blown up over the past couple of days, but is there anything in particular you would like to see NASA do in social media? What social media do you personally prefer to work with?
Ferdowsi: I think our team here actually has been really awesome. I follow a lot of the NASA, JPL and all those kind of feeds. It’s fun that we have a sense of humor about the whole thing, and I think that’s a good way to reach out to more people. It’s really cool for me on a personal level. I love getting to know some of the other people at the centers, and things like that. It makes it a more relatable experience because obviously, I always find the science and engineering stuff very cool, but it’s also really cool to kind of see, ‘Oh. That’s a person, and I understand what they’re going through.’ It’s really fun to get that inside information into what it’s like at other places and what other people are doing.

DT: What are you like just as a normal person? What are some of your favorite music or movies or television shows?
Ferdowsi: That’s a tough question. I really like “How I Met Your Mother.” It’s kind of a little bit sad now in retrospect, but I haven’t had a whole lot of time for TV in the last couple years. In terms of music, I went to Coachella this year. That was awesome. I had a great time. I went with a bunch of coworkers and friends, and we had a blast. I’m into whatever. I like to have fun too, but sometimes, like the last couple years, of course, it’s been a little more work-focused and trying to get this thing off the ground and onto Mars.

DT: Did you know that there have been astronauts tweeting at you such as Mike Foreman and Clay Anderson? I’m sure you have just like an inundation.
Ferdowsi: That’s actually really awesome. It still kind of blows my mind that there are people that think highly of me, especially people like astronauts which I think are so cool. I haven’t realized that, but I’m totally going to go look for that right now because that’s totally awesome. That’s amazing.

DT: The Space Center Houston event hosted more than 1500 people, and everyone was so excited to watch the landing.
Ferdowsi: It’s so emotional for me to see the fact that other people are really excited about this too because for me it’s always been a labor of love. It’s incredibly fulfilling to see the Times Square pictures of people out there watching the landing and seeing all the landing parties that are going on everywhere. It’s so rewarding to know that everybody else loves this stuff as much as we do.

DT: What are your future plans, at NASA or otherwise?
Ferdowsi: I’ve got at least a few months of being a flight director on the surface, and I’m kind of learning that job right now. Yesterday was a training day for me, and today I’ll do a little bit more of it. Then after that I’m just hoping that we have another really exciting project to work on. I have to say, it was funny because after nine years, you’re a little bit tired and exhausted maybe from this project, but as soon as we landed, I was just like, ‘Let’s do this again!’ For the next project, I think it’s going to be an awesome ride, but in the meantime, I think Curiosity is just going to be an amazing project. We’re going to get so much cool pictures and science back, and I hope people are still excited about it.

More to Discover
Activate Search
The man behind the Mohawk