Landing on Mars: Interview with NASA’s Bobak Ferdowsi

By Julie Ershadi

Bobak Ferdowsi caught people’s attention not only for his role in the Mars Science Laboratory mission, but for the flair with which he executed his duties during the successful Mars rover landing as part of that mission in August 2012. He was quickly nicknamed the Mohawk Guy by mainstream observers.

Many Iranian onlookers were less concerned with the systems engineer’s hairdo than they were pleased that someone with their shared heritage was playing such a prominent part in an important chapter of space exploration. Ferdowsi also worked on the Cassini-Huygens mission, which ended September 15th when the spacecraft crashed into one of Saturn’s moons.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, La Cañada Flintridge, California, USA

Kayhan Life recently caught up with Ferdowsi to learn about his relationship with his Iranian heritage, how he’s handling fame – his Twitter account is going strong with more than 100,000 followers – and what else he’s up to at NASA these days.

How close is your connection to your Iranian heritage?

I’m half, so I grew up pretty mixed between cultures. My mother is American from Mississippi and my father is from Esfahan. I think of myself as more human than any given nationality, just because I also grew up in Japan for a while, so I feel like a lot of different cultural experiences contributed to who I am. I do speak Persian, mostly with my grandparents and family members in Iran.

What’s with the name Ferdowsi? Does your family claim some relation to the famous poet who saved our language?

My understanding is that the last names came later. When families were picking last names, obviously a lot of people referred to characters from the Shahnameh. Our family thought what’s more clever than being a Rostam is being the guy who wrote it all – if I recall the narrative from my childhood correctly.

How did you become interested in a career in science?

My parents encouraged me. I always like understanding how things work, how the world works, and they always encouraged me, whether it was just through hands-on time – meaning my dad would sit down with me – or through summer education programs in the Bay Area for math and science and things like that. So it was always very positive.

The space aspect of it showed up with science fiction. Watching “Star Trek,” reading science fiction novels – that really sort of made me feel like I wanted to help build some of the more utopian versions of the future. It was a resonant theme for me, growing up multiculturally between two countries that don’t see eye to eye. This idea that somehow, through exploration, we’d come to recognize our own humanity, or our lack of differences, was always very appealing. That’s still one of the big appeals of the space program for me: that while we always work on behalf of a nation, it tends to still feel like a very human accomplishment.

I imagine a lot of what you do at your job was once science fiction, but now it’s reality.

Yes. I think of my job as really just trying to enable awesome science to happen. We have much more imaginative people out there who see the world and want to understand how it works, and I think the part I can help out with is how we achieve that vision. Scientists will want to ask, was Mars habitable in the past? Could it have supported life? I think of my job as asking, how do we let them discover that? How do we figure out a way for them to take science instruments there and return data back to earth?

What other path might you have taken besides rocket scientist?

I thought of being a United Nations translator for a while. That seems actually harder than my job, so I think I’m good.

What do you make of your meme status these days, resulting from the Curiosity landing? How do you handle all the attention?

I oscillate, because sometimes work is busier and doesn’t allow me to interact on social media. I enjoy it. Obviously there are people who do that for a living and who are better at it than me, but I enjoy it, I like the interaction.

I’m very fortunate that my interactions are overwhelmingly positive on social media, which I know is not universal. I’ve found that most people are just very inquisitive. Occasionally people will come to say something negative, but for the most part people just want to understand something about the world. I think some people are just interested in the process of getting from idea to spacecraft somewhere in the solar system. I’m happy to share that.

It was certainly much weirder for me at the beginning, but I think I’ve slowly acclimated to it. I try to be somewhat active even when I’m kind of busy with the day job.

You’ve mentioned before that you often take time to talk to children who might have an interest in space science. Is that something you’re still active with?

It is. I try to do at least one trip a month to talk to schools for events and things like that. I really enjoy it. I actually don’t enjoy public speaking very much, but I really enjoy the interactions and I love the Q&A. I think it’s fun to talk about a subject for a while, but it’s even more fun to see people’s reactions to it. They have all sorts of amazing questions.

One of the reasons I like the youth, besides the fact that I feel like I’m making more of a potential impact, is that their questions are definitely harder than adults’ questions. They fundamentally challenge your understanding of a subject. If you can explain it to a seven- or eight-year-old, I think it makes you a better engineer or a better communicator. Whereas with adults, you can get away with sloppier answers, kids don’t tolerate that.

For example, a kid asked me about gravity in space, a first-grader. Trying to explain to a first grader why in orbit you effectively have nearly zero gravity, or microgravity, and trying to use an example of dropping in an elevator – it took me a while to figure out: how can I explain this idea that you are in fact experiencing Earth’s gravity in orbit, but because you’re always kind of falling in that direction, you don’t feel gravity like you do when we’re standing on this surface? So that was a fun one. Again, adults don’t really answer those questions. They sort of just accept the idea that astronauts in space will experience microgravity.

How’s your current work going?

It’s great. I’m on an Earth science mission that we’re jointly developing with India called NISAR. It’s a lot of fun just to be doing Earth science. There are a lot of perks that come with doing a mission in orbit around Earth. One is that you can send so much more data back. Another is that you have so many fewer power concerns, and you don’t have to worry about how long it will take to hear back from the spacecraft’s signal lines and then send a command, and so on. So there’s all these things that are great about working in Earth’s orbit, which is also just really fun.

And then working with India is a really great experience. Their space program is in a different place from us, but they’ve had a huge string of successes. They approach problems differently and have different constraints. It’s the same experience that I get with kids, which is that they challenge my notions of how a spacecraft should work, or how we should solve different problems. It’s a really positive experience.

What are your interests outside of work?

I play softball, which I really like. The Jet Propulsion Lab [where Ferdowsi works] has a big softball league. Our team name is Titan Up, after Saturn’s moon. There are about a dozen teams, we play once a week and it’s fun. It’s a great way to meet other people at work besides the people I work with. It’s a nice way of getting outside, especially in SoCal where we have such fortunate weather. I play video games. I tend to play a lot of Overwatch and World of Warcraft, both on PC. It’s all based on how much time I have.

We need to know: What’s your favorite Persian dish?

Oh, I like ghormeh sabzi the most! But really it has to be homecooked, to be clear. Restaurant stuff just isn’t the same.

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