Bobak Ferdowsi, a NASA flight engineer who became known as “Mohawk Guy” after sporting a mohawk hairstyle during the 2012 rover Curiosity’s landing on Mars, spoke to a class of University of Washington aeronautics and astronautics engineering students on Feb. 19. Ferdowsi was a student in the department and graduated from the UW in 2001.Ferdowsi’s popularity skyrocketed online after the mission controller’s hairstyle became an unexpected icon of the historic Mars landing. He still works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he helps with the rover’s day-to-day operations as well as a new project involving Europa, a moon of Jupiter. He spoke to UW Today and UW Engineering while on campus.
Q: You have worked on the Curiosity mission from its early days in 2003 through the present. What has that experience meant for your career?
I went in with the approach and mindset that I have this unique experience. I’m going to learn what it is to see a mission go from concept to operations. Even for the people who have done a mission like this before, nothing really prepares you for the emotional experience when you actually land. It’s amazing to feel a part of something so much bigger than yourself.
Q: Why did you choose the UW and aerospace engineering?
I knew I wanted to do engineering and science, and I had a general inclination toward experimental physics or aerospace engineering. When I was applying, I was looking for schools that were good in those fields and had departments in those areas.
Q: What advice do you have for students interested in space research?
My advice is definitely do it. It’s a lot of fun. I think there are very few kinds of work where you get that unique sense of camaraderie. There’s a chance to work with people on a goal where you have to get this thing done, and you have to work together to do it. Ultimately, it’s really satisfying because you can take a lot of pride in your work and share your work with the world.
Q: What are the implications of discoveries on Mars for the lay person?
I think one unique thing that the Mars mission and other missions do is they bring us together as a planet. It’s kind of a uniquely human experience. We feel that human drive to understand what else there is and what greater things we can do.
Q: Best part of this publicity surge?
Meeting people has been fantastic. I get so much joy and energy and renewed excitement about my job when I get to share it with people and see their excitement. It’s kind of infectious.
Q: With your newfound fame, what message do you hope to communicate to others?
Mostly, I want younger generations to realize there is this opportunity to be yourself and to be an engineer or a scientist and not feel like there’s some cultural mold that everyone has to fit into. In fact, if you look at the Curiosity mission – rappelling on a jetpack down to the surface of Mars – that actually takes creative, audacious types of people. We want that sort of creativity that individuals bring to the table.
Follow Ferdowsi on Twitter: @tweetsoutloud.