NASA flight director’s desk job is just rocket science

Traveling 352 million miles, weighing nearly 2,000 pounds and representing years of research and development, NASA’s Curiosity rover neared its final destination of Mars as anticipation mounted back on Earth. Curiosity successfully touched down on Martian soil Aug. 5 as the NASA team erupted in cheers, high fives and hugs.

For Bobak Ferdowsi, ’01, NASA flight director, it was a hair-raising experience, both literally and figuratively. Ferdowsi—now better known as “Mohawk Guy”—sat front and center in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory control room sporting a red, white and blue mohawk while helping oversee landing operations.

“It was nerve-wracking! It’s the moment when you find out whether nine years of work is going to pay off,” says Ferdowsi. “It’s like sending a kid to college; you give them everything you think they need and then you have to let go.”

The Mars rover is studying designated areas and whether they have ever possessed the fundamental building blocks—such as water— required to support microbial life.

“Curiosity is essentially a robotic field geologist. It has instruments that are similar to what an earth geologist might carry in a briefcase,” Ferdowsi explains. Among other abilities, it will drill and use lasers to analyze rock and dirt samples.

The UW directly contributed to the $2.5 billion rover through the development and fabrication of sundials. Originally intended for previous Mars missions, the concept was adapted for Curiosity. A sundial is being used to help calibrate the Mast Cameras, which provide highdefinition, color images of the surrounding landscape.

While Curiosity pushes the boundaries of space, Ferdowsi helped launch a cool, new image for science and engineering. “It’s important to realize that it takes a diverse group of people to make these missions work,” says Ferdowsi. “Sometimes you need a more conservative approach and sometimes you need that audacious mentality.”

Watching space shuttle launches as a kid and being thrilled by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek inspired him to pursue space exploration as a career and earn a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautical Engineering.

“One of the coolest things is that kids are seeing they can be themselves and don’t have to sacrifice personality to be a scientist or engineer,” says Ferdowsi, who happily embraces his mohawk moniker.