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MIT Technology Review

Bobak Ferdowsi, SM ’03

Becoming a space explorer—and a meme.

June 17, 2014

Bobak Ferdowsi remembers the moment in 1997 when he was inspired to become an astronautical engineer. As he began his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington, images were arriving from NASA’s Mars Pathfinder mission, and “seeing pictures from a vehicle that was actively being driven on another planet—I knew it was something I wanted to be part of,” he recalls.

Bobak Ferdowsi, SM ’03

So Ferdowsi changed his major to aerospace engineering and went on to MIT to earn a master’s in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, working with the Lean Aerospace Initiative (LAI). In 2003 he earned a post at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He joined a 30-person team that was beginning a nine-year effort to develop, launch, and land the Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover vehicle.

“At that stage there weren’t classic titles and roles,” says Ferdowsi. “I was fortunate to have a great mentor, Charles Whetsel ’89. He understood that I loved the challenge but didn’t know what I wanted to specialize in. He let me apprentice in different roles, like writing requirements, testing, and operations.”

That exposure, combined with systems-level training from LAI, helped Ferdowsi become one of four flight directors who oversaw the mission from launch to landing. He also served as activity lead for the landing on August 6, 2012.

Although such missions always involve extensive preflight testing, “you have to live with the reality that there’s a good chance the mission won’t work,” ­Ferdowsi says. “I’d like to say we’d learn from it either way, but it was so intense, people working nights and weekends for years, everyone making personal sacrifices—that’s why there was so much emotion that night.”

Live video captured ­Ferdowsi and his teammates hugging, laughing, and crying with joy—and also the stars-and-stripes Mohawk he sported for the occasion. This resulted in an Internet meme: “NASA Mohawk Guy,” with ­Ferdowsi’s picture given captions like “Guides a rover through space … and into my heart.”

Ferdowsi describes the experience, which included Mohawk references by President Obama in a congratulatory call to JPL and being invited to the 2013 State of the Union address, as surreal: “The Internet has a reputation for being troll-y and mean, but mostly what I got is that people are excited about space, they have questions, and it’s been an opportunity to engage in a way that I never anticipated.”

Ferdowsi now splits his time between Curiosityand the Europa Clipper mission, which aims to send an orbiter to one of Jupiter’s moons. He also enjoys hiking and camping trips in Southern California and playing shortstop in JPL’s softball league.