On August 6, 2012, the Mars rover Curiosity broke through the Martian atmosphere then parachuted down at supersonic speeds, taking retrorockets down to the surface before finally lowering itself from a sky crane, all 154 million miles away from Earth. Huge audiences watched the landing and saw the crew of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory jump up and celebrate once Curiosity touched down on Mars. One of those celebrating on TV wore a Mohawk, his team voted him to wear it, and instantly became famous.
Bobak Ferdowsi, known to the internet as “Mohawk Guy,” was the Flight Director for Curiosity and has since become something of a NASA icon appearing on talk shows, internet memes, and even getting a shout out at the State of the Union address. However, Bobak still had his feet planted firmly on Mars.
Arizona Science Center’s Dorrance Planetarium had the opportunity to have a conversation with Bobak over the phone and we asked him questions ranging from his role with Curiosity to the imagination of science.
Planetarium: Most of the audience that watched the Curiosity landing had never witnessed anything quite like it. We missed the Moon landings and the previous Martian landings weren’t available like Curiosity was. So, to you, besides the internet fame, what did that landing mean?
Ferdowsi: It was the first time I’d ever done something like that. It was nine years of my life, and so it was very personal. I think that’s what you saw when you saw everyone’s reaction. It was a personal accomplishment. All of the long hours and missed dinners with friends and things like that — at that moment kind of fade away and you’re like, ‘we did it. We made the right choice.’ It was incredibly powerful. It’s one of those things that I don’t think was any way to prepare for emotionally. Good or bad, people always know we’ve had success, but people kind of forget that there was a chance it wasn’t going to be successful. There was no way for us to know what that would feel like without doing it before. Some people had done it before, and of course, they were still an emotional wreck during that landing.
Planetarium: How did you first become interested in science?
Ferdowsi: I don’t have an exact day or moment. I think there was a general tendency towards that in my childhood. A lot of science fiction growing up, reading Arthur C. Clark, and Asimov, and watching Star Trek — that was a big thing. From there it sort of progressed into playing with Legos and being curious about how things work. Spending time with science fair projects, I think I always enjoyed those kinds of things, asking questions and seeing if I can answer them. Eventually that grew into a real love of the sciences and mathematics where you can get answers by asking questions and following a process that leads you to a real answer, whether it’s research or it’s doing experiments on your own. I think by the time I got to high school it was pretty clear that’s what I wanted to do.
I think the moment for me when I went from ‘hey, I like science’ to ‘hey, let’s do specific things’ was in 1997 when the Pathfinder mission landed on Mars. That was, for me, the first time I’d ever seen pictures come back from another planet. I’d seen pictures in books from the Mariner probe or from Viking, things like that, but there was something very different in knowing that it was happening in that moment. Seeing live, essentially, photographs from another planet. There’s still some things to me that for all the time that I’ve spent in space and seeing pictures, some absolutely gorgeous pictures from Saturn and Jupiter and all those places, there’s something extremely tangible and emotional about seeing a physical object that people have built sitting on another planet. I thought this calls to me.
Planetarium: Relating to Science Fiction and building things, and even your famous Mohawk, how important is it to have an imagination for science?
Ferdowsi: I think it’s tremendously important. You rarely find scientists who don’t have a creative outlet as well, and I don’t mean just at work. Maybe it’s a little obvious, maybe it’s not obvious, if you look at a landing like Curiosity’s landing where you have this rocket powered jetpack, there’s no doubt that that’s the work of some creative, maybe slightly mad, people. Because that’s not the way that we’ve done things before, that’s not the status quo of airbags and so on; it’s not even the Viking landing with the rockets on the bottom — a great idea. With that kind of stuff you have to be able to be creative to work in this field because you’re constantly dealing with challenges that people have never dealt with before. That’s part of it. I think for all of us that’s a way of mixing the analytical mind and the artistic mind.
Stay tuned for the rest of our interview with Bobak Ferdowsi April 14 and April 21!