Bobak Ferdowsi Visit
Bobak Ferdowsi Visit
The Unintentional Ambassador
Bobak Ferdowsi (BSAA '01), is a NASA flight engineer, whose mohawk hairstyle became an unexpected icon of the historic Mars Curiosity Rover landing in 2012. He visited campus this spring to speak to UW aeronautics and astronautics students and shared advice for students, reflections on his newfound fame, and thoughts about the future of space exploration.
“Not everything we do is going to have a direct impact, but hopefully we come across something that is going to change the way we live. It's amazing to be a part of something so much bigger than yourself.”
Bobak Ferdowsi, BSAA '01 and NASA flight engineer
When did you know you wanted to become an engineer?
I always wanted to be involved in something technical, either physics or engineering. The defining moment for me was the 1997 NASA Pathfinder landing. Although it certainly wasn't the same way as the Apollo missions were for a previous generation, for me, it was the first time seeing that as a species, we put an unmanned vehicle on another planet.
Tell us about your current role at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
My job consists of two things: continuing operations of the rover—now that we are on the surface—and working on the development of the Europa mission. Europa is the moon of Jupiter, roughly the size of our moon, with an icy surface. We think there's a liquid ocean underneath that ice and we want to learn if there is potential for habitability. I'll start all over in project development and in 10 years we'll be on our way there. It's fun because each day is different, what you did yesterday isn't what you'll do tomorrow.
What is the discovery value in space exploration?
Often times the greatest inventions are made while working on something else. Not everything that we do is going to have a direct impact, but hopefully we come across something that is going to change the way we live. It's amazing to be a part of something so much bigger than yourself.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in space?
I would say "definitely do it." It's a lot of fun and you can take pride in your work. There are few places where you get that unique sense of camaraderie. And, you get to do things that are universally considered cool. There is something very special about working with the type of people who choose this field—people who are hard-working, motivated, and smart.
What opportunities are available in space exploration?
It's a great time to be in this field. It will expand more than we anticipated. A lot of people think that without the shuttle program, NASA's gone away, which is far from the truth. We're building new capability for manned flight and working with commercial industry to develop an opportunity for people to travel in space. This lowers the cost for all of us interested in space travel. New markets are being realized including mining of asteroids and space tourism. The balance may shift from being NASA driven to NASA being able to take advantage of these commercial developments.
You were essentially thrust into the limelight and now you're viewed as a spokesperson. Does this impact your future plans?
Definitely, I've always wanted to be a positive influence and to leave the world a better place. Now that I have a louder voice, I want to encourage a younger generation to go into science and engineering. I fundamentally believe that the great challenges we face in the next 20 years will require a generation of scientists and engineers to face those challenges and find solutions. I want people to go into those fields and realize that it's really important and satisfying work. I'd also like to encourage greater scientific discourse in this country.
What is the discovery value in space exploration or the discovery on Mars for the layperson?
There are a couple of direct examples where the development of Curiosity has led to real processes on Earth. We miniaturized the technology of one of our instruments to take to Mars. Now it will be built into a suitcase that can readily test for pharmacology, both for drugs and also as a field lab to examine ancient artifacts without damaging them. It's not carbon dating, but you can understand what materials are in the artifacts without taking a sample and damaging it. That’s a real benefit for archaeologists or anthropologists.
Learning if life can arise on other planets is a game changer in the way we perceive our own lives. The Mars missions bring us together as a planet. There's not a place in the world that looks at NASA and isn't in some way inspired. It's a uniquely human experience—in some ways an American accomplishment—but it is something that the whole world takes pride in. We feel that human drive to understand what else is there, what else we can do.
What's been the impact of your fame and what are the best and worst aspects of it?
Ultimately, it's been an amazing experience to share with the team, and to share what's coming up with NASA and why what we do is still relevant. I hope to let the world know that engineering and science are enjoyable fields and to counter the stereotype that we're straight-laced boring people. I want the younger generation to know that you can be yourself and that you don’t have to fit some cultural mold to be an engineer.
If you look at Curiosity, it takes creative, audacious individuals at the table to come up with what look like crazy solutions to problems. I think the best part about this field is that it rewards talent and hard work, not appearance. So if you want to be the sandals and socks guy, great! If you want to have piercings and tattoos, also great! It's really about working together and your approach to problems.
The negatives of fame have mostly been lack of sleep, and trying to balance a full workload with outreach. Instant fame was challenging. I don't really like being in front of cameras, I didn't ever do much public speaking, so all that was a learning experience. The negatives are very minor though compared to the positives.
What's the weirdest thing to happen to you as a result of being famous?
The most surreal experience was being invited to the White House to be a part of the state of the union. All of a sudden I'm at the White House! And then, I'm meeting the first dog, Bo, and then I'm hugging the First Lady. All I'm thinking is, "How do I greet the president?" I debated in my head doing the fist bump or the classic handshake as he is the president after all. In a moment of sheer panic I put my hand out and said, "MY MAN!" and I feel this moment, this pause, and "I can't believe I've just done this," but sure enough he was gracious and shook my hand and was very nice and laughed about the whole thing. So that was one of the most surreal moments in my life, and one of the most embarrassing.
Professionally, is there always a role that you aspire to?
I don't know if I've had a specific job that I've aspired to. I've always had a bucket list of places I want to visit in the solar system including Mars, Europa and Titan, so however I can kind of squeeze my way in, I would like to. Most people would say that Venus is not going to be revisited anytime soon, as an engineer I find it's such a challenging place and I want to do that too. Ultimately if there was a chance for humans to set foot on Mars I would, that’s on my list.
Did you have a role model or important mentor when you were a child or a student?
My dad has been a big part of who I am and he's my biggest role model. People like Arthur C. Clarke, who had the idea that you can both conceive a vision for the future and also have a real grounding and basis in scientific fact, was another big influence. Along the way there were many people who kept encouraging me, giving me the energy and motivation that I needed to succeed.