Last year's Mars landing by the NASA rover Curiosity was a nail-biter broadcast live from the control room at the Jet Propulsion Lab in La Cañada Flintridge. Yet as the rover touched down, much of the world — at least, the part on Twitter — was riveted by the grinning flight director who'd sculpted his jet-black hair into a red-tipped mohawk and shaved stars onto the side of his head.
"Mohawk guy is absolutely killing it."
"You know how in Star Trek you'll see like that one alien working around humans? Mohawk Guy is totally that alien."
"The guy with the mohawk? Flight Director for the Curiosity Rover mission. NBD."
"NASA rover Curiosity lands on Mars, and the biggest thing to come out of it is Mohawk guy."
Then came the marriage proposals. A Tumblr called NASA NEEDS MORE MOHAWKS. Even a "Weekend Update" nod on Saturday Night Live. When President Obama phoned JPL to congratulate the team, he said he was pondering a mohawk.
It didn't hurt that Bobak Ferdowsi's name makes him sound like a secondary character from Star Wars.
Ferdowsi, 33, came to JPL's Mars Science Lab as an MIT grad and estimates he's been "doing the hair" for seven years. Standing in the rock-strewn Mars Yard, where JPL tests Curiosity's potential movements using an Earthbound twin, he explains, "In a stressful situation, sometimes having a creative outlet helps to alleviate it."
When Curiosity launched in 2011, his stylist, Katie Encabo at VP Salon Organic, sculpted his hair into reddish-orange rocklike formations. For the landing, Ferdowsi's boss conducted a poll, and the team chose his look from options including a reverse mullet. "That would have been weird," Ferdowsi says.
Many people seem genuinely surprised that JPL's staff doesn't sport crew cuts or pocket protectors, like the NASA crowd in Apollo 13. But Ferdowsi believes that those piercings, tattoos and mohawks help the team innovate — like the punk rockers of science. "I would argue in some ways that if you're doing something like putting a rover on Mars, you need those kinds of audacious personalities," he says. "It helps to have people who have different approaches to life."
Yet Ferdowsi says he'll never get used to being photographed, and he smiles at the ground when praised. "I'm just another person working here and doing my normal job."
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That day, normal meant leading Curiosity in an engineering exercise to collect Martian soil samples.
Now Ferdowsi is turning his meme into a mission, using his fame to boost STEM, a term created by educators to encompass science, technology, engineering and math. The mohawk might get Ferdowsi slots on SXSW panels, but if he can get kids excited about science and math, that's a real victory, he says.
"The biggest thing I hope for is that 10 years from now, some kid is, like, 'Hey, I watched the Curiosity landing and that's the reason I'm working at JPL.' ... At that point I have accomplished all that I ever set out to do."