THE FIRST OF THE MARTIANSThe internet knows Bobak Ferdowsi as Mohawk Guy. And as “Sexiest Man” at NASA. A story about the brain behind the haircut
August 6, 2012
A white probe with grey pads rotates clockwise around its own axis, heading for Mars, the red planet. On board is the Mars rover, Curiosity, which has now been travelling for 10 months. Things are tense at NASA’s Mission Control Center. Men wearing headsets and the iconic blue shirts with the NASA logo stare at their screens. The camera pans and there it is: the mohawk. Bobak Ferdowsi, then aged 32, becomes an instant internet sensation.
For one short moment, the success of the Curiosity mission becomes of secondary importance. It’s almost as if it doesn’t matter that the probe has landed in one piece, in spite of difficult conditions. And when American President Barack Obama calls NASA to congratulate them on their success, he says, with reference to Ferdowsi’s haircut, “You guys are a little cooler than you used to be.” Obama notes that he once toyed with the idea of growing a mohawk himself. The media and the internet can’t get enough of Ferdowsi, who henceforth is known as Mohawk Guy. “Sexiest Man at NASA” is another epithet he earns.
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Bobak Ferdowsi is level-headed about it all. “I don’t think my haircut would have stood out if it hadn’t been for the context [the Mars probe landing].” Nor is he particularly bothered that the majority of people don’t know exactly what he does, talking instead about superficial things like his hair. “I think the only thing people now know is that you don’t have to look like a cliché if you work in this or that scientific field.”
Ferdowsi is suddenly an important personality in the science world. He sits next to First Lady Michelle Obama at an event and receives proposals of marriage from complete strangers. He has 73,000 followers on Twitter. For the sake of comparison, Stephen Hawking, the most famous scientist of our day, has a mere 34,000. But it would be unfair if Bobak Ferdowsi were only known for his haircut, because the man who helped put a billion-dollar probe on Mars is more than just a cool hairstyle.
Ending up at NASA thanks to Lego
Every child dreams of outer space and Ferdowsi was no different. The idea of space travel was alluring to him from an early age. But he didn’t necessarily want to be an astronaut. Bobak Ferdowsi was born in 1979 in Philadelphia, in the US state of Pennsylvania, the son of an Iranian immigrant father and an American mother. The 1980s and early ’90s were seminal; every year, at least one manned or unmanned spacecraft was sent into space.
Star Trek also played an important role, as Ferdowsi explains. “There’s no doubt that Star Trek had a huge influence on me. It was this vision of a better future that I fell in love with.” But of all things, it was one specific Danish toy that set him on the path to his current career. “My love of science and engineering is largely down to playing with Lego and reading science fiction.”
In 1991, his parents moved to Japan. Bobak attended the American School in Tokyo, graduating in 1997, and then moved back to the US for college. That same year, the Pathfinder probe landed on Mars. “It was the first time I could see what was happening on another planet, live. That was when I knew I definitely wanted to be part of it,” Ferdowsi reveals. In order to pursue his childhood dream, he began studying Aerospace Engineering at the University of Washington before switching to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2001 and two years later, having just turned 24, he started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at NASA. He has been part of the Mars Science Laboratory from the outset.
Life on Mars
For 30 months now, the Curiosity rover, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the cute, animated robot Wall-E, has diligently been doing research work on Mars. It turns over stones, explores the locality, measures the atmosphere and makes constant calculations. The rover’s aims include studying the atmosphere, climate and geology to see whether the red planet could be habitable for humans. Curiosity also makes very significant scientific discoveries, such as the fact that on Mars there is nitrogen, a gas which is just as crucial for life to exist as oxygen. Bobak’s rover is answering one question science is asking in the affirmative: Mars has the potential to be colonised.
We know the red planet from movies and TV series. Almost every relevant work of fiction has aliens living on Mars who are determined to wipe out humanity and destroy planet Earth. And yet it is Mars that has suffered that fate. “There was almost certainly a time when Mars was habitable, but there’s still a lot more exploration and research to carry out,” says Ferdowsi. To date, there have been almost two dozen orbiters and unmanned landings dedicated to exploring the planet.
Only the Moon has received greater attention with 39 missions. The first Mars mission was now more than 50 years ago, on November 5, 1964. The Mariner 3 space probe should have taken photographs as it flew past Mars, but never completed the task. Mars remains a truculent planet; in 50 years and 21 Mars missions in all, NASA has had to deal with a number of setbacks. Five missions have been classified as complete failures. The Mars Science Laboratory mission, which was initiated in 2004 and has cost $2.5 billion, is not one of them.
The landing, Ferdowsi explains, was difficult.The atmosphere at Mission Control could very well be described as dramatic. The probe had been through a number of tests, but this was its first time in space. Ferdowsi remembers one of the most complicated aspects of the project’s development phase. “Simulating on Earth what needs to work on Mars.” In actual fact, this was almost impossible. Will a man land on Mars within the next 10 years? Ferdowsi can easily imagine such a scenario. “There are still a lot of unresolved challenges for a manned mission. But if the world decided that it is worth doing within the next 10 years, then it would totally be put into action.”
Mars is important in any case, and worth the effort, says Ferdowsi. Not just because the planet has fired our imaginations from time immemorial, but because “…in many ways, it is Earth’s sister planet”. For example, Ferdowsi points out that there is also gravity on Mars, even if it is not as strong as on Earth. And there are signs of life. “It is a fact that four billion years ago, there was water in abundance on Mars. It might not look like it now, but it’s a place where we could gain a foothold and that we could eventually colonise.”
Ferdowsi stresses the word could, because in his view, we don’t necessarily have to colonise Mars, although he readily agrees that there could be advantages. Personally he isn’t drawn to Mars. Earth is still the best planet as far as he is concerned. “Earth is beautiful and all my friends live here,” says Ferdowsi. The ambitious and controversial Dutch project, Mars One, aims to colonise Mars by 2027, but he doesn’t think it’s a match for NASA. But he is, as ever, level-headed on the subject. “Anything that gets people interested in space travel is a good thing.”
The Journey to Europa
But it doesn’t stop at Mars. NASA, and therefore Ferdowsi, are involved in other new projects too. Work is underway on the OSIRIS-REx probe, which is due to explore asteroids close to Earth. The probe launch is scheduled for 2016. Plans are also afoot for missions to Jupiter’s far-off moon, Europa, and to the even more distant Saturn moon of Enceladus. Europa might have salt seas below ground. “I believe science has reached a point where it needs to explore these icy moons. There are places which have enough water and heat,” says Ferdowsi, before adding, “the search for life is one of the great quests of our time.”