Arizona Science Center’s Dorrance Planetarium had the opportunity to have a conversation with Bobak Ferdowsi, “NASA icon,” and asked him questions ranging from his role with Curiosity to the imagination of science. Our interview with him continues below in part 2 of this 3 part series.
Planetarium: Let’s say you were given a $10 billion budget for a NASA mission. What do you do?
Ferdowsi: It’s hard to say. I’m not sure all the time what $10 billion would get me. There’s a couple of places in our solar system that I really have always wanted to be a part of. I’m not done with Mars, I love it. But I would love to see a Europa mission, somehow that we’d send a submarine there that melts through the ice and then we’d swim in this potentially salty ocean beneath the ice surface and just see what’s underneath there. Everywhere we find water on Earth we find life, so it’s a possibility of a different world. That’s where I would go.
Planetarium: What would you say to an eleven year old who’s becoming interested in building things?
Ferdowsi: I would highly encourage it. For me, it’s one of the most satisfying jobs. It’s a little different than expectations, a little different because, specifically for missions like we do, they don’t happen that often. A mission will take eight, nine, ten years from the time someone’s conceived of it to the time that it’s on its way. It was nine years from the day I started to the day we landed on Mars. So it’s a long time. It’s a little surprising to me when people ask ‘is that too long? Do you feel like you’re accomplishing things?’ It’s the amazing things along the way that are really exciting.
The first time you see hardware come out and you see the physical object you helped design. Or the first time that you put things together and they work. All those things are really rewarding experiences that you have to live for. You can’t just live for ten years from now I have to do something, it’s really an everyday challenge that you get to declare victory over, and it’s really fun. It’s incredible to be part of something where everybody is so motivated and energized and excited to do this, and you feel like you’re part of something bigger, and there’s this sense that ‘yeah, we are all really working together towards a common goal or challenge.’ That’s so fulfilling.
Planetarium: Why is informal communication, like twitter, important to you?
Ferdowsi: Before landing I would tweet something and nobody would really listen or hear. There’s that ‘what’s the point’ in some cases. But now I’m beginning to realize that there’s this amazing ability, that you don’t really get with traditional media, that you don’t get on the news, or on the radio, or on TV to communicate with people who are really genuinely excited about what it is that engineers and scientists do that’s not headline news every day. But they want to know ‘how do I get into this field’ or ‘what makes X so interesting’ ‘what makes Mars such a fascinating place’ ‘why is this rock more exciting than that rock.’ I don’t think there’s another medium, yet, that allows us to have that communication. And it’s one of those things that’s really important to us — I’m always excited about my job, I’ve always loved it — but it is impressively energizing to realize that other people are really excited about it too. The feedback that you get when people share their excitement, it sort of excites you to go back to work and do more. Sometimes you can get a little lost in the day-to-day things, but with twitter and the interactions with people there, you can learn together because I don’t always know the answers to questions that some people ask.
Planetarium: Besides the landing, do you have a favorite personal story about your time with NASA?
Ferdowsi: I don’t know if there’s a specific event or story like that, but one of the most exciting things I remember was one of the first system tests we did, and it was one of the first times we integrated the kind of guts of what was going to be the spacecraft together. We have a test facility here that has a practice rover and a practice hardware setup from the cruise and descent stage and everything else. It was the first time we put the flight together, and we were in there and testing it and I remember probably spending twenty hours of every twenty-four hours in there — just getting home to sleep for a few hours — and at that point we still thought we were going to launch in 2009. We were working really hard and it was really exciting and amazing to see it all start coming together. I remember it wasn’t too long after that where they said ‘hey, we’re not going to make it in 2009, we’re going to have to go to 2011 for the launch.’ I remember thinking ‘that’s unfortunate’ maybe I had other plans, or another project, or something else. After that experience, there is nothing that I would of rather done than go back to work on the mission. I just thought ‘this is what I’m working for. Even if it didn’t launch yet, this is still an amazing experience.’ That’s one of those times where I really felt excited and happy to be a part of it.
I think the other thing that was exciting and maybe less of a story was when I joined the team (a small team of about thirty people) but there were already a couple people that I recognized from the 1997 Pathfinder mission and it was, in a sense, a fan-girl moment. These people, they’ve done this, they’ve sent things to other planets before. And these were, in my book, the rock stars, and I thought ‘I can’t believe I get to work with these people.’ That was a very exciting and kind of surreal moment, too.
Check back next week, April 21, for the rest of our interview with Bobak Ferdowsi!