The other day, I heard that Bobak Ferdowsi, “Mohawk Guy” as he’s known to a legion of online admirers, was going to be seated at first lady Michelle Obama’s box during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday (Feb. 12).
For confirmation, I went where I first heard about the Mars Science Laboratory flight director: Twitter.
When I didn’t hear back from Ferdowsi, I assumed I would just catch a glimpse of him on Tuesday’s prime-time broadcast. After all, with his travel schedule, his complicated job, and all the internet fame that abruptly descended on him last August after the flagship Curiosity rover’s arrival on Mars (on the night of Aug. 6, Ferdowsi and his renowned mohawk were clearly visible in webcast footage from Curiosity mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), it was possible he just didn’t have time to talk.
But as it turned out, he had a few minutes to spare before the heading over to the Capitol for the State of the Union. SpaceNews finally reached Ferdowsi — who is based at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. — by phone at NASA headquarters, just hours before the big speech. He said his mohawk was prepared.
Here are a few nuggets from the interview:
Can you pronounce your name for me?
It’s BOB-ak, like Bob.
When the White House people asked you to come out for the State of the Union, did they say why you’d been invited?
I think it was just a general invitation. They’re really excited about the work we’ve done in the last year with Curiosity. That was the main reason. But science, technology, engineering and math education is a really big part of this administration, so I think it’s also to do with that.
What else have you done to promote the Mars Science Laboratory mission?
Well, I was in the inaugural parade, and have given talks at various schools, which I’m really proud of. But obviously the highlights are the inauguration and the State of the Union.
I notice that you worked on the Cassini-Huygens flagship probe, which launched in 1997 and has been in the Saturn system since 2004. What was your role on that project?
I was a science planner on Cassini. Basically, Cassini has these challenges as it ages, in terms of using certain hardware. We want to keep that hardware operating as long as possible. So I was looking at optimization for the reaction wheels [which help orient the spacecraft].
You’re a Mars guy. Some people in the scientific community are of the opinion that we’re doing plenty of good work on Mars, and that there should be more missions to the planets and bodies beyond Mars and the asteroid belt. Could you foresee a day where you yourself work on an outer solar system mission again?
Totally! I unwittingly have become Mars-related, but ultimately the reason I work at NASA isn’t because of Mars specifically, but because I’m so excited about the work we do. Mars Pathfinder was one of the reasons I was inspired to work at NASA, but I am also really excited about continuing to push the boundaries. And as an engineer, I absolutely would love to see us tackle some of those challenges like Europa, or Titan, places like that. I think it’d be a lot of fun to do that, and I think NASA realizes there’s a lot of scientific merit to that. And the more research we do at these other planets that there are organics and water and other things like that at these places that make them really interesting to us. So I think you’ll see more of those missions coming up.
Do you have a favorite outer planet? You can include moons.
I’m a big Europa fan, for obvious reasons. The idea that there’s a liquid ocean there? Where there’s water on Earth, we find life there. I think that’s really cool.
Would you consider leading a small mission of your own? Could you see yourself being the lead on a Discovery proposal? Or do you just want to work on missions like Curiosity?
All of the above? Is that an option? I love my job and I definitely want to keep doing it for a while. And you know, I’ve done some proposal work before. I do like it. So far, in terms of my career, I’ve really only had the opportunity to work on really large missions like Curiosity and Cassini. But I think it’d be a lot of fun to work on a smaller mission, a competed mission like that. So yeah, if the opportunity ever presents itself and it’s a really cool mission to work on, I would definitely go down that path.
I realize this isn’t your specialty, but what do you think about the budget situation? Federal spending could be cut back even further pretty soon, which would slow things down at NASA.
I’m an engineer, so I don’t tend to get involved with the budgets or the politics so much. But I think that the president’s said that he wants to do a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, and I think we’re optimistic that we’ll see a lot more work done towards that. And the work on Curiosity and the other programs we’re working on are making good progress, so I feel good about it, you know?
Can we look forward to some exciting news from the Curiosity team? We just had the first hole drilled in Mars by the rover. Have you found aliens yet?
Ha! One of the things that strikes me about that first drill is that you can immediately tell that the rock underneath is gray, as opposed to the reddish brownish surface of Mars. Even though I don’t have the the detailed science investigation background that our science teams have, it makes it very apparent that we’re seeing stuff that hasn’t been weathered and damaged by exposure to Mars. That means that once we start taking analysis of that, which should be in the next couple of days, we’ll hopefully learn a lot of very interesting things about Mars history. And we’ll keep doing it!
How long will you be locked into your role as Curiosity’s flight director? Are you there until you decide you don’t want to be anymore?
It really depends on peoples’ interest. I think we’re doing a lot of cool things, so I want to stick around and see some more of the firsts. But eventually, the hope is that we’ll take the knowledge and experience from Curiosity and apply it to the next mission.
Do you think you’ll ever work on anything bigger than Curiosity?
I truly hope so. I think that this is the first mission I’ve spent so much of my time and my life on, so there will never be anything that quite replaces it. But I think that if we do something like this to another place, perhaps Europa or Titan, that would be equally, if not more, amazing. And if I get to be a part of maybe putting the first crew on Mars, that would be really an incredible accomplishment for me. So I think there will be something bigger, but I will say that Curiosity will always be my number one.
Do you have any interest in the astronaut corps? You could be that first man on Mars.
I’m not sure. Maybe, but I really do love what I do, and I feel very fortunate to get to do that. I think that takes a very dedicated, special person. I have some friends who are applying, and I have the utmost admiration for them.
If somebody offered you the job of director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, would you take it?
Probably not! I think that sounds a lot more stressful even than my job.