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 the last of a 3 part series.
Planetarium: You were involved in the Cassini-Huygens mission as well, so which would you personally rather do, land on Mars or glide over the rings of Saturn?
Ferdowsi: I don’t know that there’s a good answer. I think there’s just something about physically seeing a thing that I helped make sit there and be a part of the landscape and drive around it. The Cassini has done some incredible science. The pictures are far more breathtaking than the pictures we’ve taken on Mars. But there’s just something to me, maybe it’s a little bit of the human spirit of exploration of seeing something that humans built that’s physically there. There are no tangible science benefits, I mean there is looking back at the mission, but nothing comes down to the tangible science benefit to me. For me, it’s really just some emotional call. Maybe because I know that’s the Pathfinder for the people setting foot there. Seeing the wheel there is the proxy for my foot one day on Mars. Saturn’s gorgeous and the moons are amazing, if anything I’d be more excited to send something to a moon of Saturn, but there’s that very physical, very tangible feel. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m here at NASA today.
Planetarium: Do you think there are any odds of seeing a Curiosity or Opportunity in some kind of Martian Smithsonian years down the road?
Ferdowsi: In terms of bringing them back, almost certainly not. It’s possible that one day space travel becomes so cheap — and we’re slowly getting to a point where it’s cheaper and cheaper with commercial space flight — that we will have the ability to bring things back. But we have the engineering models here on Earth.
When people come to JPL for the open house for our tour, sometimes they get to see Curiosity’s twin, and what is a recreation of a Martian landscape for the rover to practice driving and drilling and doing different activities. I think that will probably make it to the Smithsonian. We have to keep it here in case something should happen to Curiosity and we need to try something out here. When Curiosity’s time comes, when it’s time to retire the mission, I’d love to see that in a museum. I don’t think people realize how big this rover is. There’s nothing for perspective, it’s just a solitary rover on the surface.
Planetarium: What do you think of when you look at the stars?
Ferdowsi: I think a bunch of things. I think, one, I would love to go out there one day and see it. I still get emotional when I see the Milky Way galaxy. I think, more than just the stars, I think it’s the sense that we’re part of a galaxy. In LA sometimes it’s hard to realize. But there’s something about seeing the Milky Way galaxy and realizing there are so many stars and we are part of just a little bit of the galaxy, of the Universe.
Then my mind will inevitably drift; somewhere out there I am optimistic that there are life forms, and they are looking to the sky and seeing a completely different picture of the Universe around them, but also longing to learn and maybe meet other people one day.
I think that’s part of who we are. I think that’s what makes our species so special, that ability to look beyond our own existence and say ‘what else is out there?’
The night sky is still a very magical place to me. I think sometimes it comes up that science makes things less magical or exciting, and I think the exact opposite. I remember learning about how airplanes fly, and thinking about the Universe is kind of the same thing. Even if you know ‘stars are formed this way’ and ‘planets happen this way’ it’s just all the more, I would say splendid and awe-inspiring to see it in person. It’s kind of a great place to be, to both appreciate it and also to be able to be influenced by it emotionally.