WASHINGTON — It’s been quite a six months for Bobak Ferdowsi, the NASA flight director on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission, whose aggressively mohawked hair — and otherwise charming appearance — first attracted attention last summer. Now, he is going to be a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama in her box at President Obama’s State of the Union address.
“Aug. 5 was enough for me,” Ferdowsi said in an interview at NASA’s headquarters Tuesday afternoon. “Landing a rover on Mars was honestly one of the things I’d always dreamed of, so everything else has really been icing on the cake — a very delicious cake.”
As everyone in the control room in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on Aug. 5, 2012, awaited pictures from the Mars rover Curiosity, the Ustream views of the control room shot up and Ferdowsi’s mohawk — with its accompanying emblazoned stars on his hair on the side of his head — were a central part of the show for the hours until the successful landing on the surface of Mars.
Ferdowsi is a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the time since has included more work for him, but also recognition — as a new face of NASA. Ferdowsi represented NASA at Obama’s inaugural ceremonies in January. Then, this past week he got another call from Washington.
“I found out less than a week ago, honestly, that I’d been invited to the State of the Union,” he said. “I freaked out for a few minutes, just needed a moment to gather myself. It’s really cool, I’m really excited, yet again, to represent NASA and JPL and all of the work that everybody here does. It’s really amazing to me. Sometimes I feel unworthy in some ways to do all this. I think there’s so many talented and fun and amazing people on the project that I worked on, but all across our place. I just feel very lucky to get to do stuff like this.”
As for what he is most excited about, he told BuzzFeed, “I’m really excited to get to represent NASA. I’m excited that people have been excited and watching and paying attention. I am excited to — like anyone would be — to meet the First Family. A little giddy with excitement there, I don’t think I have to hide that. It’s really cool.”
The hair colors Tuesday night will not be missed. Bright red and blue streaks run along the top of his freshly coiffed mowhawk.
“I thought it would be a good time to celebrate our country, of course.”
And the sides?
“I have U.S.A. on one side and Mars on the other, because that’s, like, my other place. Just celebrating the events.”
As a fresh new face of NASA, his discussion of what’s coming from the agency is invigorating.
“We’re still supplying the [International] Space Station. We’re still sending astronauts that are living on the Space Station,” he said. “We have the upcoming Orion crew capsule testing coming up, so that we’ll start flying that in a few more years. It’s our next-generation crew capsule that will support both trips to the ISS and possibly to the moon and beyond.”
“We also have a lot of missions coming up, more Mars missions are coming up. We’re looking at missions to other planets, moons of Jupiter and Saturn. So, there’s a lot of these things that are coming up in the next few years.”
“I think the next decade is actually a very busy decade for NASA, both with the manned and unmanned programs.”
So, what’s it mean?
“We’re gearing up,” he said. “Curiosity represented a step forward in terms of if we want to put people on Mars, which has been one of the president’s goals for in the 2030s. We will need to be able to go and understand Mars better. We have instruments on board Curiosity that will help us understand the radiation environments, possible habitability of Mars. So that’s one step forward, and the Orion crew capsule is another step forward in terms of getting people out beyond lower Earth orbit.”
“In this sense, I think we’re really actually bulking up so that we can do the big things that we want to do in the course of the next couple of decades. But, in the meantime, I would say we’re doing a lot of really cool stuff.”
Ferdowsi also told a story of how the August mohawk might not have been.
“For landing night — one, I had a history of doing different hairstyles, so my team knew I was going to do something for landing because I did a thing for the launch, I did things for the different tests we’d done, and everything else, so they knew that. Going into it, I was like, ‘What should I do?’ And my boss kinda beat me to the punch and sent out this email poll to the team and said, ‘You guys get to vote on Bobak’s hair.’ One of them was to shave it off, which, I guess, fortunately for me, didn’t make it. But, the overwhelming winner was the red, white, and blue thing, so I tried to work that in there.”
For tonight, though, he smiled, saying, “This one was just for fun. Here are the things I’m excited about tonight.”